Here’s Lookin’ at You, Kids

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(Pictured: Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in a colorized still from the 1946 film The Big Sleep.)

Welcome to another edition of Short Attention Span Theater, with bits that never made it into a full post. Last summer I started writing about an American Top 40 show that played the Drifters’ “On Broadway” as an extra, and I went off on a tangent about shared popular culture that I ended up cutting. Here’s a bit of it: 

Nowadays we actively hunt for something to watch on TV, and in a universe with so many channels, we almost always find something. In the three-channel days, we watched whatever was on. Your show got over and you stuck around for what was next because there wasn’t much else (and if you wanted to change the channel, you’d have to walk across the room to do it). Each of us who grew up in that time can remember how, late at night or on a weekend afternoon, we’d find ourselves engrossed in some old movie. And as the years went by, we all saw Casablanca and Double Indemnity and Rebel Without a Cause and The Maltese Falcon and Singing in the Rain, film noir and screwball comedy, Bogart and Bacall, the Hope and Crosby Road pictures,  the Universal movie monsters—we engaged with one of the 20th century’s richest pop-culture texts, the films of classic Hollywood. Nobody gets that education passively nowadays—you gotta go and look for it, if you can find it, and most people won’t. Something like 80 percent of the movies on Netflix have been made since 2010, and I’ve actually heard people under the age of 40 say they simply cannot watch black-and-white.

But does a person need to be conversant with old-school Hollywood today? Probably not. If you want to appreciate modern Hollywood, you’re better off boning up on the DC and Marvel Comics universes, which have swallowed the movie industry whole. 

There’s another fragment on the flip. 

Local disc jockeys used to be bigger stars than they are now. When I got to the Quad Cities in 1987, the first market I ever worked in that was big enough to have TV stations, local jocks appeared on the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon and the public-TV benefit auction. (I did the latter myself once, if I’m recalling correctly.) Spike O’Dell drew eye-popping audience shares in morning drive and appeared in local TV commercials before splitting for WGN in Chicago. But by the time I got to Madison in 2000, the landscape was vastly different. And today, there are maybe three Madison radio personalities whose names would be recognized by people who don’t necessarily listen to them. When Spike left the Quad Cities for Chicago, it made the front page of the local newspapers. But in the last several years, Madison has seen several popular personalities, some with decades on the air here, leave their jobs (voluntarily and not), but to my knowledge, there was scarcely a peep of local media attention given to any of them, unless they were in trouble with the law.

Gone are the days when one jock—like Spike, or Clyde Coffee, who ruled morning drive in Madison from the 60s to the 80s—could command a 70 percent share of the audience. A top-rated show at a top-rated station attracts far smaller shares and a far smaller number of listeners today. And in some markets, the personalities on the local stations aren’t local at all. It’s been that way long enough now that I wonder if listeners differentiate between live and local and not, or if they even care whether the voices are live and local or not.

There is more involved with the causes and effects of the relative obscurity of those still toiling on the air in their local markets, more than I addressed, but I wasn’t thinking about that when I wrote it. I was thinking about the talented radio people I know who are making a living driving Uber or selling insurance or working in a cubicle farm somewhere, rather than doing the thing they wanted to do all their lives, the thing they’re really good at and have a passion for. And how when they left their jobs, nobody seemed to care all that much.

One thought on “Here’s Lookin’ at You, Kids

  1. mikehagerty

    The world of limited channel choices (we had seven in L.A. and only four when we moved to Bishop) had its upside in unintentional exposure to things I would never have sought out.

    I’m directionally challenged. If most people have a 50/50 chance of getting it right at a fork in the road, I’m probably 20/80. But, as I tell my wife, some of the coolest things I’ve ever seen and some of my favorite places, I discovered while lost.

    That was certainly the case with TV and, to be honest, broad playlist radio.

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