This started out as my own comment on the post I put up here Friday, but it turned into a whole post.
I appreciate your thoughtful comments on the purpose of local radio. And I agree with commenter Mike that even 40 years ago, radio stations were subject to sameness and homogenity. Even in what we perceive as a classic era, jocks could easily fall into the trap of doing nothing but time, temperature, title and artist, and generic pop-culture bits, and do it for years on end without ever realizing (or being told) that there are other ways.
But maybe what frosts me more broadly than a lack of localism is the lack of a sense of place. I wrote about this last October. The major chains often run the same formats, based on the same music research and with the same positioning and imaging, in market after market. Although it strikes me as less than 100 percent desirable, I get it. It makes financial sense, and there’s not going to be a great deal of variation among (for example) classic-rock stations no matter who’s doing the research or what audience is being surveyed: you’re gonna hear “More Than a Feeling” and “Sweet Home Alabama” everywhere you go. But I grew up on stations that ran automated national formats, and I listened to big network O-and-O’s like WLS in Chicago, and between the records you always got a sense of where they were from, whether it was from jock talk, news content, or even just commercials. And that sense is largely missing from similar stations today.
(Digression: I recently tweeted an aircheck of Chicago jock Clark Weber, doing a morning show on WLS in 1966. As I listened, I was amazed that I could still recall the tag from one of the commercials, for a clothing store called William A. Lewis. For years, their ads ended with a list of locations: “2301 West 95th, Hillside, Harlem/Irving, Randhurst, and Scottsdale Shopping Center.” At the end of the ad, I recited the list of locations just as if I were reading the tag in the studio myself. That commercial was just one of the things on WLS that gave young me a sense of the place called Chicago.)
Two Octobers ago, I wrote about a small-town classic-hits station on which the music format was almost completely predictable, and where voice-tracked local jocks never did anything but title, artist, and national feature bits ripped straight from the AP wire. But even that station gave a listener a sense of coming from somewhere specific. It was in the untrained Midwestern accent of the young woman doing the midday show; it was in the promos for the Friday-night high-school football broadcast; it was in the commercials for local car dealers and restaurants; it was in the newscasts talking about house fires and city council meetings. But when every voice on the station is smooth, every spot is for a national advertiser, and there’s never a newscast or even a weather forecast, you don’t know where you are—or who they are.
As commenter Rick points out, radio is best when it sounds like its coverage area. Automated, satellite-delivered, or voicetracked radio doesn’t have to be completely generic; it doesn’t have to be live and local 24/7 either, but at the very least, you should try. Take whatever opportunity you have to do whatever you can. The giant chain station that inspired Friday’s post wasn’t bothering to do that, at least not when I was listening. Maybe they had a local morning show or afternoon drive-time show I didn’t hear, and maybe that show is strongly focused on the home market. It’s possible. But it’s just as likely that the station is running Bob and Tom in the morning and/or Slacker and Steve in the afternoon.
There’s a philosophical foundation for generic formats (“local radio deserves the strongest personalities available, and our national jocks are the strongest”), and it’s cheap. There’s an argument, I suppose, that a sense of place isn’t important if all you want to hear is “More Than a Feeling” and “Sweet Home Alabama.” And in the end, maybe those of us who think radio should aspire to do something for its local community beyond being a conduit for generic programming are old fossils whom the world has passed by. But as long as I’m still able to drag my ass into a studio, I’m gonna do it my way, and argue that it’s the right way, and encourage other people to do it that way too.
Recently I was on the road, having lunch in a place playing one of the local radio stations. “Local” in the sense that its tower and mailing address were in the same town I was in. Its programming was not local at all. It was running a national voice-tracked format on which the only thing local were the ads—and those local ads often came at the end of interminable seven-minute breaks, the first three minutes of which were national ads and promos for the parent company’s national shows, its app, and its podcasts.
Several years ago, when the drift toward this sort of canned programming had just begun, a prominent radio executive was quoted as saying that local stations were entitled to have the strongest personalities available, and that his canned national jocks would be better than anybody local. Back then, I wrote a little about it, and after coming across that piece in the archives recently, I think it’s worth rebooting, with some minor edits.
[Whether the executive’s comment makes any sense] depends on what you think local radio is for. If it’s only to provide music and/or talk for the people within range of the signal, his philosophy has a great deal to recommend it. But if you think local radio has a service responsibility to the community in which it is located, that philosophy is harder to swallow.
The major chains put great stock in running public service announcements, which is one way stations have served their communities since Christ was a corporal (especially when paid ads aren’t selling well). You put ’em on the quarterly issues report you are required to place in your files for public inspection, and you get credit for ’em at license renewal time. But public service announcements, while important and useful, are not equivalent to broad, deep community engagement, even if you run one an hour seven days a week.
Community engagement happens in lots of ways. When important news or weather breaks, how do the people on the air talk about it? Is it happening to them, or are they watching it in a newsroom miles away? How about the mundane stuff of daily life? Are the jocks talking about their experience at the big local game or the community festival just up the road? Does the mayor ever call in, or the fire chief, or one of the local TV news anchors? When people go to the grocery store, will they ever run into the morning guy? Are they going to see the woman who does middays hosting the local public TV auction? When they go to the county fair, are the jocks staffing the station booth?
There’s a compelling argument that in our atomized, customized, short-attention-span world, local sourcing matters far less than it used to. We like to eat fresh produce in the winter and we don’t care that it comes from South America or Australia. Why should we care that the guy on the radio is in a studio 1500 miles away, and the joke he just made about the Oscars was recorded last week?
But here’s the thing: serving local communities is bred in radio’s bones. It’s what the people who invented the damn thing intended it to do. The Radio Act of 1927 required stations to operate in the “public interest, convenience, and necessity,” and generations of broadcasters did so. It’s only since the de-regulatory fever of the 1980s and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that we’ve seen the wholesale turning-away from those reasons-to-be.
Executives who talk about the superiority of national programming talk exactly like people whose job is to monetize a private asset. If that’s what you think radio is, and what it’s for—an asset that belongs to you and you alone, and has value only if turned to money, as if it were a crop of winter wheat or a carload of steel ingots—then you’ll streamline and standardize. But if you believe that radio is a public asset that you hold in trust, you’ll ask yourself not, “What should we do so we can profit from this?” but “What must we do so the public can profit from this?”
The current economic realities of radio, and the needs and desires of even small and local companies to keep up with the changes wrought by the giant chains, make it hard to put the public interest, convenience, and necessity first. Some companies still have the old way in their DNA, however, and if there’s one of them in your town, they deserve your earholes, and your marketing dollars.
(Pictured: Christine, Stevie, and Lindsey on the Tusk tour in 1980.)
The fall of 1979 was a remarkable season for rock albums: The Long Run by the Eagles, Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door, The Wall by Pink Floyd, Damn the Torpedoes by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk were all released between August and November. Not quite so titanic but still significant releases in the same season included Fear of Music by Talking Heads, Cheap Trick’s Dream Police, Head Games by Foreigner, Blondie’s Eat to the Beat, and Regatta de Blanc by the Police. (And, hat tip to our man Kurt Blumenau, Aerosmith’s Night in the Ruts too.)
That fall, I was doing a show on the college radio station called Virgin Vinyl, where I’d play selections from the new stuff that had come in during the past week. When Tusk came in, I played the whole thing, possibly 40 years ago tonight, but most likely 40 years ago this week. Listen to it while I attempt to rank the tracks here in 2019.
20. “That’s Enough for Me.” By the time you have reached side 3, you have already heard several of Lindsey Buckingham’s punk-inspired, semi-experimental goofs, and “That’s Enough for Me” feels highly unnecessary.
19. “Never Make Me Cry”
18. “Honey Hi”
I will ride with Christine McVie to the end of the line. I adore her voice and how she does not play the piano as much as she caresses it. But these songs are casualties of a double-length album. They’re lovely, but they get lost.
17. “I Know I’m Not Wrong”
16. “Save Me a Place”
15. “The Ledge”
Tusk finds Lindsey, Stevie, and Christine going all White Album from time to time. Each of them seems to recycle ideas at least once or twice, but Lindsey does it most often.
14. “Sisters of the Moon.” This was the fourth single in the States and it bombed spectacularly, getting only to #86 on the Hot 100 in a three-week run in June 1980. KDWB in the Twin Cities took it to #17, but in the fall of ’79, when the station charted several cuts from several of its top albums.
13. “Never Forget.” See #19 and #18.
12. “Beautiful Child”
Stevie is in full ethereal goddess mode here, and that’s a compliment.
10. “Over and Over.” On the night I tracked this on the radio, “Over and Over,” track 1 on side 1, seemed like a less-than-scintillating way to start a record, certainly not like “Second Hand News” on Rumours or “Monday Morning” on Fleetwood Mac.
9. “Not That Funny”
8. “What Makes You Think You’re the One”
More Lindsey flavor. In college, we dug “Not That Funny” simply because of the way he sings “It’s not that funny, is it?” Meanwhile, “What Makes You Think You’re the One” could have been a hit single.
7. “Walk a Thin Line”
6. “That’s All for Everyone”
The more Lindsay involves the rest of the band on his songs, especially on vocals, the better the songs are.
5. “Brown Eyes.” For years, “Brown Eyes” went right past me without making much of an impression, but it deserved better. The former Mr. and Mrs. McVie play beautifully together, so much so that when the rest of the band comes in, I find myself thinking, “No, leave them alone, they’re doing fine on their own.”
4. “Tusk.” Now that we’ve all heard “Tusk” a million times, we can no longer capture the utter WTF moment we experienced the first time the marching band kicked in. The record is not really as foreign as it sounded in 1979. Mick Fleetwood’s insistent drum beat is engraved on human DNA, and the first half has the same ominous feel as “The Chain.”
3. “Think About Me.” The most obvious single on the album.
2. “Angel.” “Angel” would have made a better fourth single than “Sisters of the Moon.”
1. “Sara.” Stevie is a little more anchored and a little less the ethereal goddess on “Sara,” partially because the song is based firmly on her real life, often presumed to involve a child she didn’t have with Don Henley. Stevie herself has said it’s A) about her breakup with Mick Fleetwood; B) about Fleetwood’s ex, who was named Sara; and C) about “what all of us in Fleetwood Mac were going through at the time.” There’s evidence in “Sara,” for all of it and then some: desire, regret, hope, loss, it’s all in there.
As a double album, Tusk will always suffer next to its two predecessors, and also the album that followed it, Mirage. Taken on its own, however, it’s better than I have given it credit for over these last 40 years.
(Pictured: Ray Thomas of the Moody Blues onstage in 1981.)
It’s not a rock-critic wisecrack: the Moody Blues’ Michael Pinder once claimed Mantovani as an influence. It seems to me that if the Moodys hadn’t adopted the style of highly orchestrated rock that became their trademark, somebody else would have.
In 1972, I was hooked by the AM-radio version of “Nights in White Satin.” When I finally heard the whole thing, including the poem “Late Lament,” I was in the middle of my teenage bad-poetry-writing years, and it blew my mind. (Today, I cringe almost as hard at “Late Lament” as I do at my own poetry.) Several of the Moodys’ most iconic performances had come between 1968 and 1973, but apart from the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “Steppin’ in a Slide Zone” in 1978, they were not in current radio rotations for most of the 70s.
Then came 1981, and Long Distance Voyager. Nearly every superstar act had a record out that year, but Long Distance Voyager ended up one of the year’s biggest hits, doing three weeks at #1 on the Billboard 200 as July turned to August, powered by the hit singles “Gemini Dream” and “The Voice,” which went to #12 and #15 respectively. “Gemini Dream” has a “Ride My Seesaw” vibe, but also a forward-looking 80s production style; three years later and with some gated reverb, it could have fit right in next to Bananarama. “The Voice” is all lush and wooshy, and too much of both for oldies radio today. “Meanwhile” is probably the best thing on the album. “Nervous” needs a more distinctive title; its “Bring it on home / Let’s bring it on home / Your love” refrain is lovely in that distinctive Moody Blues-ian way.
So as I listened I thought, “Hey, this is better than I remembered.” But then came the final act, a suite by singer/flutist Ray Thomas: “Painted Smile,” built on a clown metaphor your fourth-grade niece could have come up with; a positively dreadful 30-second poem/link called “Reflective Smile”; and “Veteran Cosmic Rocker,” three minutes of embarrassing bombast climaxing with:
He struts, he strolls
His life is rock and roll
He’s the veteran cosmic rocker
He’s afraid that he will die
Teenage bad-poetry-writing me would have dug it, I’m afraid.
I had such a strongly negative reaction to the last part of the album that it ended up coloring my reaction to the rest of it, but on further reflection, Long Distance Voyager is actually OK. It would start another long stretch of radio hits for the Moodys, with eight more entries on the Hot 100 and a strong presence on MTV before the end of the 80s, after which they started their long afterlife playing alongside local symphony orchestras.
Reading List: In addition to listening to a lot of music this past month, I also read Wasn’t That a Time: The Weavers, the Blacklist, and the Battle for the Soul of America by Jesse Jarnow. The Weavers were born out of an era in which people like Pete Seeger (a founding Weaver) believed that folk music could transform America from the capitalist rat race into a just society all by itself, but the Weavers’ idealism crashed head-on into the anti-communist panic of the 1950s. Seeger, a tireless genius who never compromised his beliefs even when threatened with jail, is a highly underrated historical figure, but his fellow original Weavers, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman, were equally brave and interesting.
Also worth your time is Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen’s 2016 memoir. I don’t read a lot of rockstar memoirs; I’m more interested in a biographer’s dispassionate examination of a perfomer’s life and work than I am in 300 pages of “and then I wrote _____.” But Born to Run paints a vivid picture of a thoughtful, tenacious individual even more interesting than the one you think you know from the records you’ve listened to for over 40 years.
Blues singer Robert Johnson is one of the most mythologized figures in music. Authors Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow have spent over 100 years between them tracking down Johnson’s story, and they’ve published it in the brand-new Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson. Johnson wasn’t the plantation savant he’s sometimes believed to have been; he was a trained and serious artist who worked hard at his craft. Although he didn’t sell his soul at the crossroads, and the jealous husband who murdered him didn’t mean to kill him, the Johnson that emerges in Up Jumped the Devil is plenty interesting even when grounded in reality.
Here’s a thing I wrote 10 years ago this month.
One of the most memorable days of my brief tenure as a social-studies teacher started when one of my sophomores raised a hand in the middle of a lesson on the Populist Movement and asked, “Why do we have to learn this?” As a believer in the concept of the teachable moment (and with some wiggle room in the syllabus for the semester), I decided to toss the lesson plan for the day and turn the question around: “Why do you think we have to learn this?”
We ended up talking about whether human choices affect the course of history. Several of my students were convinced they do not. The students recognized that their choices had an impact on their lives, but they didn’t believe the same thing about the choices made by others—everyone else’s actions were fixed and immutable. History is a river and humanity is in a boat, but there’s no pilot—we’re just floating along with the current, and it takes us wherever it’s going to go.
(At one point, I asked them what would have happened if John Wilkes Booth had decided not to shoot Abraham Lincoln. In the front row, a hand flew up instantaneously. “If Booth hadn’t done it, somebody else would have, because Lincoln had to die.”)
I forgave my students their perspective, though. Not until one reaches geezerhood does one completely understand the potential impact of choices, even little ones. It doesn’t take a great deal of imaginative effort to visualize a whole range of other lives you might have led: if you hadn’t taken a particular job, gotten involved with a particular person, done something you did, left something else undone—if you’d only steered the boat on a slightly different heading. It’s not exactly making a map of the roads not taken—a map shows where you’ll end up, but with visions, how can you tell? Nevertheless, conjuring with what might have been is a pastime we can’t resist. And in October, a month when time runs in reverse, it’s a greater temptation than at any other time of the year.
But here’s the thing: Even if we’d sometimes like to be someone else somewhere else doing something else, that’s not the boat we’re in. And it’s not automatically a bad thing to simply float along for a while. If we work too hard at steering the boat, we’re going to miss the scenery. Or, as Mary Chapin Carpenter puts it:
No one knows where they belong
The search just goes on and on and on
For every choice that ends up wrong
Another one’s right
A change of scene would sure be great
The thought is nice to contemplate
But the question begs why would you wait
And be late for your life
Perspective From the Present: When we were kids, Mother used to say to us—and I have heard her say it in more recent times too—“you should always have something to look forward to.” I lived by Mother’s wisdom until I was deep into adulthood, until it occurred to me that if you are always looking forward to something, you’ll miss what’s happening today. Although you won’t always succeed at it, it’s better to be here now. Don’t spend all your days focused on the future. Be here now. (Stop looking at your phone—be here, now.)
My mother’s advice is meant in the kindest, most benign way—look forward to a birthday party, a day spent with friends, that kind of thing—but some people twist it by focusing on a goal and excluding all else. Get a diploma, get a degree, get a job, climb the ladder, and 10 years from now, or 20, or 30, you can start living.
But if you work too hard at steering the boat, you’re going to miss the scenery.
“Late for Your Life,” from the 2001 album Time*Sex*Love, might be my single favorite thing by Mary Chapin Carpenter. Over the years she’s done a lot of baby-boomer philosophizing, but it strikes me that more than anything else, “Late for Your Life” is an agape love song. You may have learned in Sunday school about agape love: pure, selfless, unconditional, given without expectation of anything in return. Her kind, open-hearted concern for her listener’s happiness is clear, and the tenderness of her performance is remarkable.