Step by Step

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We are fortunate, out here on this quiet corner of the Internet, to have a few people amongst the readership who worked on American Top 40 or for Casey Kasem on other shows. One of them, briguyx, commented on Monday’s post, in which I edited a long bit of a 1985 show:

When I wrote for Casey, it was very important to take the listener step by step, from one thought to another in each of the long intros, without skipping a step. You might call that spoon fed!

That’s an excellent definition of the process of informational writing: moving step-by-step from one thought to another without skipping a step. It’s the way to proceed when presenting a concept you want people to learn. In my two decades as an educational writer, it’s something I did all the time.

In education, we talk about scaffolding: building on a base of existing knowledge to introduce new concepts. It’s how any of us gets proficient at anything. We learn the basics, about building a birdhouse, or about biology. Then we learn other stuff that builds on it, until eventually we can make a chair or create a vaccine.

A teacher or instructional designer has to account for the fact that students’ scaffolds differ. Imagine a lesson about that old social studies favorite, triangular trade. A lesson for high-school seniors will be qualitatively different than one for fifth-graders. Although every student’s learning style is a little different, there are some valid assumptions you can make. For example, because upper-level students have a greater background in history and/or economics (theoretically), there are some things you either needn’t explain at all, or you need mention only briefly to refresh the recollection you expect them to have. Also, you can use more advanced vocabulary, because they know more and bigger words. In short, high-school students have a more elaborate scaffold upon which to build.

That doesn’t mean you won’t still spoon-feed—or, to use a better and more accurate term, that you won’t elaborate on certain ideas, explaining them in greater detail. Which ideas get elaborated depend on the age and/or proficiency of the student. The youngest ones (or beginners of any age) get elaboration on practically everything, because they gotta start somewhere. As students get older and/or more experienced, the elaborated concepts are likely to be more complex ones. We also tend to elaborate key ideas that need to become part of the scaffold, so that the students will be able to build on those ideas as their studies continue. Elaboration is meant to illuminate an idea, expand a student’s understanding, and help them connect it to the scaffold. It’s not mere repetition.

The central or main idea of the Casey bit is this: in her new song, Lisa Lisa uses a bit of an old song by a famous singer. Casey wants listeners to understand how Lisa Lisa and the old song and its singer relate. That’s a legitimate purpose, and you can argue that he accomplishes it. After all, I didn’t change a word of his original text, and I added only one word. But I did take out the stuff that sounds like, or perhaps was intended to be, elaboration that helps the listener better understand. I would argue that elaboration isn’t needed here. Casey’s audience of adults and young adults can follow and understand just fine: Lisa Lisa has a new song that is related to this old song by Ella Fitzgerald, and here’s who Ella is. The “elaboration” doesn’t illuminate the main idea, it belabors the point. That’s not good teaching; it’s just bad writing.

Depending on your purpose, taking your reader (or listener) step-by-step from one thought to another without skipping a step is absolutely a valid way for a writer to go. (And if it’s what the boss or the client wants from you, you’ll have to do it.) But for that approach to be truly effective, it has to account for the expectations and capabilities of the audience. Assume too much, be too complex, be unclear, and your piece will fail to accomplish its purpose. But you can also assume too little about your audience’s capabilities—and end up insulting their intelligence. That’s my gripe with the Ella Fitzgerald bit.

Am I overthinking this? Maybe. In any event, we will get around to a more mundane discussion of the AT40 show from August 31, 1985, on Friday. 

9 thoughts on “Step by Step

  1. Jim Bahler

    As you indicated, trying not to over-instruct is important. However, the lack of instructions for items including cell phones, computers, and TVs is frustrating.

    I had an older worker who would periodically forget how to turn on her computer. Computers frustrate many of us, and a simple on/off or start/end button would certainly help new or otherwise challenged folks to enter the world of computers.

    As for myself, my last computer training was in 2003, and while I learned root directories and programs of the day- remember Lotus 1,2,3?- I don’t have a clue as to later programs. Without a tutor or coach, I couldn’t figure out how to print a mailing label this week when I had my first sale. Turns out it’s a tiny icon in the far RIGHT near the TOP of the screen, mixed in with a handful of other mysterious icons. Want to control the size of the label? Scroll way down on the far LEFT BOTTOM until you get to “other”. And don’t shut your printer off if you’re not connected to a router, because you’ll have to play a tutorial in order to figure out how to reconnect to your computer. This is all ridiculously crazy with the lack of on-screen instructions.

    You’re completely correct regarding Lisa Lisa, but there’s also a dearth of instructions that are needed for both computers and phones. There could be both detailed and onscreen simple popup instructions, similar to how you dealt with Lisa Lisa Lisa Lisa.

  2. Scott Paton

    As a fan of AT40 from its inception, and then a staff member (interviewer/writer ’76-’79), I must admit that scripting, at times, could be head-scratching at best. As much as I enjoyed those early shows, they were often rife with shaggy dog stories.

    Junior smart-ass that I was, I would often pull one of those sketchy tales from the past and poke fun at them during copy meetings. My evaluations were not always appreciated by veteran personnel. This led to a purge of the files of many of those suspect pieces by their author.

    When AT40 expanded to four hours (biggest mistake ever), the demand for extra content –Long Distance Dedications, recaps and weaker material– diminished the pace and quality of the show. Within a few years, great content was more the exception than the rule. And as Casey admitted to me, he stopped having any real familiarity with the music in the show.

    Students and real fans of the show, myself included, often cite 1973-1978 as the peak years of AT40. It certainly is the prime arc of the show’s affiliate growth and station clearances. But there were some funky stories in that time frame, too. I probably wrote a couple of ’em!

    1. mackdaddyg

      I’m just wondering…how did the stations react to the show being expanded by an hour? Was it a good thing or a pain in the tuckus?

      1. I can’t speak to how stations reacted to the change when it was made in 1978. I can say that when I first started working at a Premiere Radio Networks affiliate in 2008, they did not offer full four-hour 70s shows as reruns at all. Later, they sent only the last three hours with an announcement that the broadcast was starting with the second hour of a four-hour show. Once Premiere started offering four-hour 70s shows, the first hour contained no network commercials, so stations weren’t obligated to run it—which says to me that modern-day 70s affiliates preferred the three-hour shows, and why wouldn’t they? It’s a pain to have a show that runs 9-midnight most weeks except sometimes it starts at 8 or runs til 1.

        In all the time my station ran the four-hour 80s shows (2010-2019), there were no network commercials in the first hour, so if stations chose to run only three hours, they were free to do so.

      2. mikehagerty

        My station wasn’t an AT40 affiliate at the time, but I do recall some of the sentiment. It learned toward “pain in the tuckus”. A few PDs suggested that they’d have been happier with a three-hour show renamed “American Top 30”, given that such a move would take a lot of stiffs out of the equation and reduce (but not eliminate) the chances of unfamiliar music being played on their air once a week.

      3. Scott Eric Paton

        There was much unhappiness expressed about adding a fourth hour to AT40. I never heard of a single station that was actually happy about it as it messed with airshift schedules and other syndicated or network programming that piggybacked on Casey’s appeal. The additional fourth hour is what turned the show’s steady growth into affiliate attrition. I believe that AT40’s peak clearance (number of stations worldwide) was reached in 1978. Watermark president, my dear friend, Tom Rounds often admitted what a mistake that fourth hour was.

  3. Guy+K

    I know I’m in the minority on this, but when they expanded from three hours to four, I’d have just preferred they made the show American Top 50.

  4. mackdaddyg

    Thanks to all for the responses to my question.

    JB actually cleared up something for me. My local station that plays AT40 reruns just does three hours. Once in a while I’ll tune in to hear the beginning, and they start at number 32 or something. I kept thinking somebody was just screwing up, but I now know that they may just be playing the last three hours of a four hour show.

    That’s a pity, because I find the first hour or so the most interesting, especially when I hear a song that wasn’t a big hit.

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