When Old Things Weren’t Old

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(Pictured: Wolfman Jack in the 60s.)

On a Facebook group devoted to classic Top 40 radio, I recently read a lengthy thread started by somebody who argued—not for the first time in this particular group—that Cumulus or Audacy or iHeart should take some signal in Chicago and bring back WLS the way WLS was in the 60s and 70s, recreating the hot-rockin’ Top 40 radio so many group members were weaned on. It would just have to be a hit, because look how many people here on Facebook love that stuff. A number of readers chimed in to agree.

In another group I read, devoted to local history, a moderator posted a newspaper article and photo about an old building that was being torn down to make way for a parking lot. One commenter wrote about how sad it is that old buildings aren’t preserved. Others agreed, and talked about how regrettable it is that people don’t care about their history. But here’s a plot twist: the article and photo were from 1953, and the building torn down was only about 50 years old. To people back then, the building was a thing that had outlived its usefulness. It was replaced by something that, it was hoped, would bring a greater benefit to the community. We can scarcely blame the people of that time for not seeing the “significance” that we assign to it nearly 70 years later.

The Top 40 radio we loved so much back in the day is the same thing. There was little sense among the people involved that they were creating a unique art form that might be worth preserving someday. It was utilitarian. For the jocks, it was a job. For the owners, it was a way to make money. And when something came along that would bring a greater benefit to the community (or the stockholders), it was torn down and replaced with something new.

My exasperation with these dreamy Facebookers has grown the more I think about it. Jesus on two sticks, people, you don’t need to reboot those stations for the music; that’s already out there, on countless streamers, to whatever degree of library depth you want. And outside your Facebook echo chamber, practically nobody is interested in that kind of radio. Even if they were, its audience would be considered “too old” by most potential advertisers. Cumulus, Audacy, and iHeart aren’t going to put it on for nothing. (Even though aging boomers with disposable income should be a prime sales target for cars and vacations and luxury goods, just watch MeTV or Antenna TV for a half-hour to see the type of advertiser willing to spend money on them.)

Also, people forget that Sirius/XM already has channels attempting to recreate classic Top 40 radio—60s on 6 and 70s on 7—and they’re awful. They recreate the form, but without the spirit. And when people say they miss 60s and 70s Top 40 radio, the spirit is what they’re talking about. It’s something rooted in time and place, and the experience of listening in that time and place, and being who you were. The spirit is the critical element, and it’s impossible to duplicate. You can’t do it only with jocks and jingles.

(One day a radio colleague told me that he had produced a spot and saved it to the proper folder on the server, but when he got back to his desk he couldn’t find it. I joked, “This never happened when we carried a tape down the hall.” I am convinced that some of the Facebookers would see this incident as a legitimate argument for bringing back recording tape and cart machines.)

I am probably the most nostalgic person you know. This entire damn website is an exercise in nostalgia. I have spent most of my adult life looking back. I can be nostalgic for years that didn’t seem very special while I was living them. I cherish and take comfort in revisiting the places I have been and the experiences I have had. But I grow weary of the myopia from people of my generation who mistake normal processes of growth and change for assaults on All We Hold Dear. (It’s a major source of much of the current trouble we’re in as a nation.)

The past is gone, and it ain’t coming back. Not because people don’t care about old things, or because they didn’t care when those old things weren’t old. Like it or not, we live only in the now, and the road we travel goes only one way.

21 thoughts on “When Old Things Weren’t Old

  1. Holy crap, a thousand times this.

    Years ago I was subjected to a radio consultant stuck in the past like this. He brought in a tape from another market doing the whole “retro” presentation a la SXM’s 60s on 6. “This is what we should be doing!” he exclaimed. As we listened, I glared at the GM, brushing the imaginary vomit that the puker on the radio had cast onto my chest. Shortly after that, I shifted the brushing to my resume, as in “brush up.” I wasn’t going to play along, because apparently only I understood that the teenagers of fifty years ago don’t want to be treated like teenagers anymore.

    Look, I’m a radio historian, with the papers to prove it. I love old airchecks. The chances of me listening to a radio station that sound like that now are exactly zero. Why? Because I love the time and place of the original. The old advertising jingles. The pacing. The jocks. I’ll listen to an old recording of Lujack or Landecker, but I won’t endure someone (like me) trying to rip ’em off. It’s just not the same. (Like JB said, I wouldn’t be there for the music. That’s already in my basement.)

  2. WLS was more than just the music. WLS was about the personalities. You cannot duplicate Larry Lujack, John Records Landecker, or Yvonne Daniels. They were once-in-a-lifetime. Today’s programmers and sales managers would never allow the freedom those broadcasters enjoyed. I would rather listen to 50-year-old airchecks than the “jocks” voice-tracking today’s shows on multiple stations and in multiple markets. Maybe that’s why I listen to The Wow Factor programmed by John Sebastian. Music I enjoy with few commercial interruptions and no “talking heads.”

  3. Bravo, JB.

    Anyone who’s read my comments here knows that I have great regard and admiration for the people who entertained and informed us years (okay, decades—I’m old) ago. But I run into the same thing online.

    “Bring back KFRC!”

    Been done. 1993 and 2007. Last one lasted a year.

    “Do it right this time! A Top 40 with all the original jocks!”

    Top 40 would be Kodak Black, Justin Bieber, Lil Nas X and Adele. Dr. Don Rose, Big Tom Parker and John Mack Flanagan are dead.

    Architecture too. On Facebook, Alison Martino, the daughter of the late singer Al Martino, has built an empire with a page called “Vintage Los Angeles”. I’m a fan. I’ve chatted with Alison. Lovely woman. But honest to God, the comments from the readers…

    “They should have never torn that building down.”

    They didn’t. It fell down in the ’94 Northridge quake.

    “KHJ should have never gone country! It was number one!”

    Yeah, six years before it went country. It had a 1.7 when it made the change because you and your friends started listening to KMET in ’74.

    And Len, absolutely right. I’ll be 66 next month, and I’m pretty well over having call letters sung to me and 45s played at 48. I lived it. It was fun. Nobody under 50 even has a point of reference for it, though.

    Tempus has done fugited.

  4. At 16, I began bagging groceries at Publix superMarkets. Most of the cashiers, managers and even the full-time employees were anywhere between 30-60 yrs old. It was my first big exposure to “adults” in the real world, the workplace, social circles etc. Up to then, it was either family or teachers that were the adults I dealt with.
    I clearly remember being a bit surprised about how most of them had a problem with everything and everyone that was a bit younger, a bit different, or anything that “wasn’t what it used to be.” Something about that struck a chord with me… so now at age 57, I have no problem with anything “different/changed”… I LOVE things in my past… like most of you, I LIVE in the past in some ways… but the present is a pretty cool place.
    Love/agree with JB’s post and the same with all your comments.

    1. mikehagerty

      Some people calcify. Sadly, I think it’s more true of my generation (Boomers) than it was our parents.

      And I think Americans’ tendency toward nostalgia is being weaponized. There are way too many Facebook accounts that don’t appear to be linked to anything that specialize in “Remember how much better things were when….” posts.

      If you haven’t seen it, this Ted Koppel piece from CBS Sunday Morning last year is a great illustration of how some of us remember fiction as our lives. Ted goes to Andy Griffith’s hometown, Mt. Airy, North Carolina, which is cashing in.

      1.  Wow, pretty neat that you included the Mt. Airy story. I’ve seen that Koppel piece and have been to Mt. Airy two times. Spending a couple of days there each time. I’m a HUGE FANATIC about that show. I realize that it was a complicated time back then, that the show/town wasn’t a real place. I also realize that it symbolizes a wonderful part of my childhood. As does SO MANY things about the 70’s… music, TV, childhood etc. 2022 is just as amazing for me… at least in some ways. Tonight the wife and I have our 2 granddaughters (5 & 8 yrs old) spending the night. I love seeing the world through their eyes. I’m certainly worried about this world, probably like my parents were about the world I was growing up in. Love hearing everyone’s thoughts…

        Sent from my iPhone

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  5. Jim Bahler

    Perhaps what those of us who long for the ‘good old days’ of the ’60’s rock music want is what we found on the ‘Cruisin’ lp (and later, cd) series: the original voices, original ads, original music from back in the day. I doubt there is much available, but when I visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame many years ago, there was a room with headsets where we could listen to airchecks of those great deejays. There were a lot of airchecks and deejays available to listen to. It would probably be too much work and too expensive, but it would seem that someone could edit together the airchecks, the old ads, more diverse oldies, and slot in new ads where necessary for revenue.

    1. mikehagerty

      Jim, I will say that there is one situation where your idea has been used. Because Wolfman Jack’s shows on XERB/XEPRS and his syndicated programs were all pre-recorded, he kept the tapes. When he passed, his widow Lou began working with syndicators and those programs have been sliced and diced (digitally) to create new shows, replacing not-so-great songs played the first time around with (arguably) better ones, etc.

      Some of those shows have made their way to YouTube. Here’s one:

      But—it’s worth noting that most of the stations that carry or carried these shows put them in weekend nighttime timeslots and nobody got rich from advertising revenue playing them.

  6. Jim, the audience for old radio is so small (and so increasingly old) that there isn’t revenue to be had. If you enjoy original unscoped airchecks from the glory days, though, I can recommend several sites, including the original, REELRADIO (www.reelradio.com),

    Archive.org has a huge collection that is growing daily (just type “aircheck” into the search box and stand back) and two guys on Mixcloud (www.mixcloud.com), Radio Maven 77 (radio historian Rob Franekl) and Retro Radio Joe (no idea who he is) have truly impressive collections that they update nearly daily. All you have to do is press play.

    1. Hell, even reelradio.com has trouble getting money from the fans needed to keep it there. We almost lost the whole thing a few years back if I remember correctly. If the fans won’t pay for it, I can’t imagine the guy down at Bob’s House of Blinds buying spots on a station playing old airchecks.

      1. mikehagerty

        You remember correctly, Len. Richard Irwin spent the last years of his life struggling to keep that site afloat. The good news is that his tech guy, Barry Brown, and two other longtime fans of the site are the new board of directors and, although it’s been slow going, RealAudio has been replaced, students at Sac State are working on a new playback interface (it uses VLC in the meantime) and donations are voluntary once again.

  7. Chris Herman

    Granted, I didn’t start listening to Top 40 AM and AOR FM radio until late in their golden periods but I don’t miss them that much. Back around the turn of the millennium, I got into downloading MP3s and the first thing I thought was, “Why couldn’t have this been around when I was 13!” Any song I wanted to hear was now just a few clicks away whereas 20 years before, I wore out the dials of several radios station-surfing for songs I liked. And if I was curious about an album after reading a review, I could go online and check it out rather than try to persuade my parents to drive me to some brick-and-mortar business so I could shell out at least $8 of my hard-earned newspaper delivery money to buy a tape or vinyl LP that I discovered I hated after bringing it home and listening to it.

    Those days are gone forever. Over a long time ago.

    1. mikehagerty

      Nice Steely Dan reference, Chris!

      Same here. For the cost of one CD, I have instantaneous access to every currently available album in existence. A record library that has flawless copies of everything I owned once upon a time and albums I never bought because—-well—money. And it goes everywhere I do, because I access it from my phone. It’s Apple Music.

      I also have that film library I always dreamed of as a kid. Yeah, I have too many subscriptions (Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, Disney, HBO+, Paramount+, Apple+), but it’s nowhere near what I thought it would cost me to ever have the selection I now enjoy.

  8. These folks who dream of hearing WLS again would like to have their youth back. It is an understandable impulse (and a forgivable one, to some degree) … but it is not feasible.

    In my early 30s I had the good fortune of working next to a guy in the newsroom who was absolutely convinced that *nothing* was as good as it had been in the ’70s and ’80s. Even the way we filed for expenses wasn’t what it used to be.
    I say “good fortune” because it was a daily education in how far lost you can get thinking that way. The guy wasn’t an evil human being or anything (AFAIK) but he’d fallen into a trap and it wasn’t doing him any good.
    I still think of him a lot … in a backhanded way, he was one of the strongest workplace influences I’ve ever had.

    1. porky

      Passing the baton can be tough for some. A musician a few years older than me (he’s 67) is one of the “back in my day, bands were ____________, could _______________, didn’t need ____________________ etc” and he doesn’t even realize he sounds like the music store owner I worked for in the late 70’s: “Back in my day if a guy was a musician he could read a chart, etc etc.” Of course both of them are/were right.

  9. I sometimes get nostalgic for WFIL, Famous 56, in Philadelphia, the king of top 40 radio in Philadelphia during the late 60s – but it’s for the sound and format of the station, not the music, because I can easily find all of those songs at many places on the web. The jocks that I loved are all dead & bringing the station back with new on-air personalities would never be the same. Also, now that we’re all a lot older I don’t know how long I could listen to the same 40 songs played over & over again all day long, especially when you consider there were always a few of those songs that I didn’t like. For those of you interested in the station you can get your jollies here at http://www.famous56.com/. It’s pretty cool!

    I like playing my CDs, LPs, and mp3s. It’s all music I want to here and there are a few Internet radio stations I stream through Alexa & my Echo. Quite eclectic.

  10. Which leads to the question, “would you want to go back in time, knowing what you know now?” Probably not. It was a joy to listen to the Beatles on WLS, but not knowing they’d break up and John, Paul, Ringo, and George would have excellent hits of their own. It was a thrill to listen to WCFL as a Top 40 giant but not knowing it would become a Beautiful Music Station in 1976. It was cool to hear “Rock & Roll Part 2” by Gary Glitter on KAAY/Little Rock, without knowing he’d eventually become a sick and perverted sex offender. Hey, it’s great to hear all your favorite old music and there are so many ways to hear it today. But, the EXPERIENCE of hearing it when it came to be is what makes life worth living at the time it took place.

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