Today, a lot of radio stations—sadly, not just in small markets anymore, but in medium-sized towns and even a few of the majors—are programmed from elsewhere, without much local input or flavor apart from what goes in the commercial breaks. That’s not what killed the phenomenon of the local/regional hit record, which assumed room temperature sometime in the 70s, but it made sure that such records are never going to be heard much again.
Back in the day, however, skilled and adventuresome programmers—our late Internet acquaintance Bill Vermillion in Orlando and Jonathan Little here in Madison come to mind—had an ear for the hits, not just the big national smashes but local and regional records that fit their particular visions, and for the ones that did not. Not everyone had this gift. For every Vermillion, there were a dozen clods who would play anything that came across their desks, or who believed that mindless variety equaled success and therefore they should play both Merle Haggard and the Stylistics. On the other hand, some programmers were in thrall to managers who insisted on vetting the station’s playlist, believing they knew best what should be on their air, and forbidding certain records accordingly.
So: I am not convinced that KRCB in Council Bluffs, Iowa (just across the river from Omaha), sounded particularly good in the fall of 1969—their chart for the week of September 20, 1969, is missing “Sugar Sugar,” “Honky Tonk Women,” “A Boy Named Sue,” “Sweet Caroline,” “Lay Lady Lay,” “Put a Little Love in Your Heart,” and “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” which were doing big business across the country. It could be that the Omaha metro area didn’t dig the Stones, or maybe it was just that the geenral manager didn’t, but whatever the reason, KRCB provided its listeners with a mix unlike any other station in the country.
8. “Baby It’s You”/Smith (up from 11). Dang I love this record, which rocks just as hard as “Honky Tonk Women.”
9. “Make Believe”/Wind (up from 12). Co-produced by Bo Gentry, most famous for co-producing Tommy James and the Shondells, “Make Believe” features a New York singer who aspired to be a record executive and eventually became one—only to become a singer again in a year with another studio group. Dawn was a bit more successful than Wind had been, and the New York singer, Tony Orlando, would never have to go back to working in an office again.
12. “Love and Let Love”/Hardy Boys (debut). Maybe KRCB didn’t play the Archies, then enjoying their first week at #1 with “Sugar Sugar,” because they had another prefab, TV-inspired group on their air. The Hardy Boys were on a cartoon show that fall; a record under their name by a group of studio musicians, “Love and Let Love,” was promotional synergy. It wasn’t especially successful synergy, however—the song peaked at #101 in Billboard.
15. “Hold Me”/Baskerville Hounds (debut). These guys were a garage band from Cleveland supposedly managed by DJ Ron Britain, who spent much of his career in Chicago. “Hold Me” would do a couple of weeks on the Hot 100, built on a base of organ, scratchy guitar, and a half-sung, half-shouted vocal that sounds a little like Paul McCartney in spots. (For radio geeks, there’s a great profile/interview of Britain here.)
Boss Bound: “Comin’ Back”/Marquee Revue and “Try a Little Harder”/Rumbles Ltd. The ultimate beauty of locally programmed music radio was that local acts could get their songs on the air, sell a few records, and make bus fare. The Marquee Revue was on an Omaha label; the Rumbles Ltd. were a Council Bluffs band. “Try a Little Harder” is, like dozens or hundreds of local hits from that era, professionally produced and kinda catchy, but it’s not one of the great lost hits of the age or anything.
It’s arguable that today, given the Internet in general and YouTube in particular, it’s easier for unknown acts to score big than at any time since the days when local stations programmed local records. But is watching your YouTube hit count climb as cool as it was to hear your song on the local Top 40 station?