Great on the Radio

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(Pictured: Rick Dees, which rhymes with cheese.)

I was driving the other morning, golden September light all around me, listening to an American Top 40 show from September 1976. I was not really paying attention, I have to say—there are other things on my mind this September, with more than enough weight in the here and now to make it less attractive to deliberately take on the weight of the past. I was distracted enough so that only a few bits of the show were able to break through.

—On that September weekend, eight new stations had joined the AT40 family, including WINO in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. WINO, of course, was the call sign in George Carlin’s famous Top 40 parody, “Wonderful WINO,” such an indelible performance that it seems strange for any real-world radio station to have those call letters. It turns out that Casey’s new affiliate was a student station at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, but I have learned nothing else about it.

—The Rick Dees novelty “Disco Duck” was on its way to #1 in September 1976. A couple of years ago at Popdose, I described it like this: “It’s just a guy singing about turning into a duck and then, another guy who can do a duck voice speaks in a duck voice.” But the first 10 seconds sound insanely great on the radio, and the record is rich with Memphis connections. Dees worked for a Memphis radio station when he recorded it; it was produced by Bobby Manuel, who had been a studio musician at Stax and became a business partner of Stax co-founder Jim Stewart after Stax went broke. Before it was picked up by RSO Records, it was released on the local Fretone label, owned by the other Stax co-founder, Estelle Axton. So dim as it is, there are several reasons it sounds as good as it does.

—There are different schools of thought on how DJs should handle their levels. My preference is to run the music hot and my microphone hotter, so that the music is always very, very present. If a record is mastered to be really loud—as many records are nowadays—I drop the level of the music a little, but only a little. Other jocks will start with the music up, turn it way down when they talk, then quickly crank it back up to 100 percent. Casey’s producers liked to mix him with his voice at 100 percent and the music barely audible behind him. Only when he’s done talking does the music zoom up to 100 percent. This is fine if you’re listening in a quiet place, but not in the car. Unless you make an effort, you often can’t tell what he’s playing until he stops talking. It sounds somewhat better on the radio, where audio is processed to smooth out the dynamics, but on a CD in the noisy audio environment of the car, not so much.

—Also on the radio in September ’76 was the group Silver. It featured a future Grateful Dead member, Brent Mydland, on keyboards; singer/guitarist John Batdorf had been one-half of Batdorf and Rodney, known primarily to denizens of the cutout racks; bassist Tom Leadon was the brother of founding Eagle Bernie Leadon; the other dudes in the band were known only to their friends and family. The most famous person associated with the group turned out to be future comic actor Phil Hartman, who designed the cover of the band’s lone album during his days as a freelance graphic designer. The band’s lone hit, “Wham Bam (Shang-a-Lang,)” riding the chart in September 1976, is one of the most splendiferously 70s records there is, from the opening drum pickup and the big fat lead guitar to the sunny 70s harmonies and the singalong refrain. And it has one other distinctly 70s thing:

Now that it’s said and we both understand
Let’s say our goodbyes before it gets out of hand

It’s about keeping a one-night wham-bam from becoming more than that.

7 thoughts on “Great on the Radio

  1. porky

    Look at the thighs on those girls. Definitely a different time. I can’t help but associate “Disco Duck” with driver’s ed as it was on the radio when we went out driving. That and “Edmund Fitzergald.” And “Rock ‘n Me.” And “Year of the Cat.” And…..

  2. Chris

    Any mention of Phil Hartman from his graphic artist days leads me to Poco—

  3. Hi JB,

    The AT40 when Rick Dees topped the chart is the one Casey was tracking the day I visited Watermark Studios, bedecked in my brown corduroy blazer, drenched in sweat because I missed my last RTD bus connection on Ventura Boulevard and had to race, on foot, to reach my destination on time.

    I’d met The Caser the prior weekend at a celebrity charity softball game in Burbank. He graciously spoke to me at length and gave me his producer’s phone number. It was her, Nikki Wine, who invited me to visit the studio the following Thursday morning. I got to peek in on Casey in the booth and was given the ten-cent-tour of the entire facility. Little did I know that I was meeting my soon-to-be colleagues and many future cherished friends.

    It’s very odd looking at the Billboard Top 40 for that week. Music from our youth is so closely associated with specific times, places and events, and this list is a virtually even split between tunes that take me back to the twilight of my childhood in Maryland and young adult life in Los Angeles. The shift was that abrupt, yet those 40 songs span the two eras.

    Compounding this touch of schizophrenia is the fact that many of the artists on that chart are people that I would be interviewing in short order, and that some of the songs still ascending are ones that I would be writing about for the show before their chart run was over, for I would be joining the staff just weeks later.

    That day, as my visit was concluding and Nikki and I were descending the outdoor stairs from the executive and sales offices, back down to studio level, I heard the intro to Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” coming from down the hall. It was being played to facilitate Casey’s rap going into the song. Nikki said, “Looks like Chicago is going to have its first Number One single.”

    And I responded, “Well, it’s a lot better than their last record (“Another Rainy Day In New York City”).”

    At the bottom of the stairs, as I offered my thanks and we said our goodbyes, Nikki asked if I had any other questions. “Yeah,” I said. “What’s the Number One record this week?”

    “Disco Duck,” she replied.

    We both just kind of shrugged our shoulders and bid adieu.

    1. jb

      For those amongst the readership who might not recall, Scott was a researcher on AT40 from 1976 to 1979, and he’s been gracious enough over the years to share some memories of what it was like to work there.

      Thanks for this one, sir.

  4. I built the WINO radio station at Central Michigan University in 1973 and maintained it until I left Mt. Pleasant in 1980. We chose WINO for the call sign because George Carlin was extremely popular and we wanted the radio station to be fun. At the time WINO ran American Top 40, we were a 24 hour commercial station using LPB (Low Power Broadcast Inc.) transmitters on 850 khz to cover the 19 dorms at CMU. I built the control board and ran the phone line and coax cables through the utility tunnels at CMU. We had a number of major national sponsors that advertised with WINO on American Top 40. Coca Cola, Levi’s, Dairy Queen, Atlantic records, were just some of the advertisers on WINO. The station was run by a group of people that did amazing things with very little money.
    Johnny Chamberlain was the music director, Terry Levins was the program director, Joel Butler was the production director (wrote and produced all of our local commercials) and I was the station manager and engineer. The station was very popular with students. At the time the only FM stations that could be received on campus were the local country town station WCEN, the public broadcasting FM station WCMU and the 10 watt broadcasting department station WMHW. WMHW was transitioning from a block programmed station that was listened to by very few students to a more classic rock format and several years ago they were granted a huge power increase by the FCC and are know as Modern Rock 91.5 . WINO which was renamed WRFX in the late 70’s survived for several years after I left CMU, but carrier current AM broadcasting at CMU was doomed when more and more FM commercial stations could be received on campus. If you would like to know more about WINO, let me know. I still have logos, letterhead, advertising rate cards, some of the radio programs broadcast over WINO on cassette (some are now MP3s). I also have the original AT40 program that mentioned WINO on vinyl. I wish I still had the tape of voice overs that Kasey Casem did for us!. College radio in the 70’s was a blast. We used to drive down to Detroit and visit all the A&R record people we could find. WINO received pretty much full record service from all the labels but we would return from Detroit with a trunk and back seat filled with albums, posters and other promotional goodies that we gave away on the air. College radio was the best part of my time at CMU and it really did help me prepare for my future. There are quite a few WINO alumni that stayed in broadcasting and became successful but I was not one of them. Communications is my career but broadcasting is not.

    Charlie Gamble

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