(There will be a new post at One Day in Your Life today, possibly by the time you get around to reading this one.)
When I’m on the air, I don’t get many request calls anymore. Maybe people have figured out that any song they want to hear is two clicks away on YouTube or Spotify, or maybe they’ve internalized the fact that radio stations play requests on only the rarest of rare occasions, if then.
Twenty years ago, at a classic-rock station, I did an all-request show on Saturday nights. It started as a one-shot program on New Year’s Eve in 1995 and expanded to a weekly thing not long after. It was the most highly produced show I’ve ever done—I had dozens of drops and sweepers with audio clips from TV shows, movies, comedy albums, and every other weird source I could think of. Plus, it was a free-form show–nothing was pre-programmed for me. I would occasionally get dinged by the PD if I strayed too far from the day-to-day format, but that taught me how much easier it is to ask forgiveness than to get permission, which has been my guiding principle on the air ever since.
Because I’d been a program director and a music director, I tried to systematize the show as much as possible. People called up for some songs every damn week: “We Will Rock You” (which is the only part request callers ever want to hear; “We Are the Champions” is extraneous), “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” and “American Pie” were among the most annoying. It didn’t take long before I made a rule: I would play certain songs two weeks in a row but then rest them on the third week no matter how much people begged. For most other songs, I had an every-other-week rule. The number of people who were simply listening was always far greater than those who were calling in, and I wanted to keep the show from becoming any more repetitive than it had to be.
While the vast majority of calls would be for songs or artists we played regularly throughout the week, every now and then somebody would blow my mind. I got a call for Mason Proffit’s “Two Hangmen” one night, which may have been the only request I honored a week late because I had to go out and find a copy. (With the hearty approval of the program director, who was an old free-form album-rock jock.)
I had a few other rules for the show: the no AC/DC rule, which I adhered to strictly even though I could have played “You Shook Me All Night Long” nearly every week. (I did not hold my substitute hosts to this rule, so AC/DC got on the show sometimes.) One night a parent called up, put their toddler on, and had the kid ask for “Aqualung.” It sounded funny, so I used the call on the air. I was thereafter besieged by other parents doing the same thing until I made a no-kid-calls rule. (I’d play your song, but not the audio of your kid requesting it.) Another rule was that Steely Dan requests went automatically to the front of the line—the only rule I ever mentioned on the air, but always jokingly so people would wonder if it was really true. When I’d get a call that was obviously from a party where people were listening, I’d move that request to the front of the line also.
Late one night, an obvious party call came in. A woman wanted me to confirm that in the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Heard It in a Love Song,” the singer does not say, as her husband insisted, “ten feet long.” (The line is “can’t be wrong.”) I told her she was right, and she put her husband on the phone so I could tell him in person. That call, followed by that song, made pretty good radio. We had a digital recorder in the studio, the first one I’d ever seen, so it was easy to cut up calls and play them back.
Thinking back, it’s amazing how much autonomy the station gave me, a mere part-time jock. Fortunately, I had a good relationship with the program director, and he trusted me. And in 1996 and 1997, my 7-to-midnight Saturday show was just about the most fun I ever had in radio.