In recent months, I’ve gotten Internet-acquainted with Scott Paton, a veteran advertising, PR, and radio guy who, as a fuzzy-cheeked youth between 1976 and 1979, was a writer/researcher on American Top 40. Recently I asked him about the typical week in the production of AT40, and he was kind enough to share a rundown, the first installment of which I’m posting here, pretty much verbatim. Now on with the countdown:
As a “new” show cycle actually began on Friday, a typical week at AT40 was something like this:
Friday: Look at the Billboard chart that would be hitting the street the following week and focus on the records that were bulleted and likely to debut on the Top 40 the following week or (more proactively) in the weeks to come. This was critical advance work, especially when a song was by a new and unknown act. Casey had to have something to say about these new artists upon their debut, so I’d be calling record labels, PR firms, managers, and agents to start compiling a file of information and hopefully interesting facts on each artist.
Every act that ever charted during AT40‘s run had an 8-by-10 manila folder with bios, press releases, notes, interview transcripts and press clippings inside As you can imagine, the Elton John folder would be considerably more voluminous than, say, the folder on Blue Swede.
While I was working on gathering human-interest angles on the artists and records, statistician Sandy Stert-Benjamin would be diving into the brand-new second edition of Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles book to come up with interesting chart facts to use in Casey’s intros and outros and, when it was a great statistic—like the highest debut in the Top 40 in more than a decade—occasionally a full-blown tease and hook.
Scott explains the tease and hook this way: “Tease: ‘Coming up . . . the dramatic story of the songwriter who was kidnapped by a rogue band of Cherokee Indians who threatened to take his life. But with just moments to live, he was spared when he promised to write a song about the mistreatment and plight of the Native American throughout history . . . and in our country today. That terror-inspired composition is this week’s Number One song.’ (Not the original, actual tease, but my current take on it, based on memory.) The hook consisted of the story songwriter John D. Loudermilk told AT40 about his car breaking down in the wilderness, being held at knife-point by crazed Cherokees, and his pleading for his life with the promise of writing an epic tune about all that Native Americans had endured over many generations. The song, of course, was ‘Indian Reservation’ by the Raiders. And that story was—and would have remained—the very best in AT40‘s history if it wasn’t completely bogus.”
Monday: More of the same. And I’d be setting up interviews with performers potentially any day of the week. Depending on proximity, I’d do them in-person or on the phone. We also had a fellow by the name of Alan Kaltman back in New York who would do occasional interviews as well. In those days, we got everybody, with the notable exceptions of John Travolta and Peter Frampton. They had really hard-ass management. (Frampton today, by the way, couldn’t be a nicer guy.) Meanwhile, producer Nikki Wine would be taking the raw material we provided her and she would start drafting the longer stories. I’d write my share of the feature pieces around my interview and research activities.
On Mondays I’d also head down to the newsstand on Cahuenga at Hollywood Boulevard (still there) to buy all the new weekly and monthly music magazines, or anything with a possible story to be mined from within. Melody Maker and New Musical Express (NME) from England were often incredibly helpful.
Tuesday: Mid-morning copy meetings with Casey, where he would read the drafts we’d written, presumably for that week’s show. Sessions with just the Caser, Nikki, Sandy, and myself were very productive and, for me, very informative. Once Casey was convinced that a story was viable—or better yet, great—it went into the pool.
As I recall, we had a total of four extended stories per hour in each show. But we couldn’t simply have 12 good stories in the hopper ready to go. Depending on how the chart numbers fell each week, we could theoretically have two, three or even four acts in-a-row that were the subjects of those stories. The show’s content had to be spread out evenly, so we had to have lots of extra pieces to choose from every week. And if we had an absolute killer tease and hook on a record that looked like it was heading to Number One, we’d try and save it for that occasion. When Debby Boone was at Number One for 10 weeks, we all wanted to hang ourselves. There simply weren’t ten great stories to tell, although I did volunteer to date her if that would have helped.
Which is just the thing a young researcher looking to ingratiate himself with the bosses ought to do, dammit. Coming in the next installment: Casey sits down behind the mike and does his thing.