April 9, 1973: Fact-Finding

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(Pictured: Golfer Tommy Aaron receives his green jacket as 1973 Masters champion from 1972 winner Jack Nicklaus.)

April 9, 1973, was a Monday. Newspapers headline yesterday’s death of Pablo Picasso at the age of 91. The New York Times reports that Watergate burglar James McCord has told the Senate Watergate Committee that the Nixon campaign made cash payoffs to the burglars. A new Gallup poll released today shows President Nixon’s approval rating at 54 precent, somewhat lower than it was earlier in the year when Vietnam POWs were first returning home. Network newscasts lead tonight with news from Southeast Asia, including accusations that North Vietnam has shot down helicopters belonging to the International Control Commission, a body created to monitor the cease-fire agreed to in January. General Alexander Haig, vice chief of staff of the US Army, is in Thailand on a fact-finding visit. South Vietnamese president Thieu visits Pope Paul VI at the Vatican; the pope asks him to release political prisoners in the country’s jails. A giant spring snowstorm moved into the midwestern United States starting yesterday; today it dumps heavy snow, whipped by winds up to 70 miles per hour. Madison, Wisconsin, records 13 inches of snow and Milwaukee gets a foot; in Dubuque, Iowa, 19 inches falls. In Green Bay, Wisconsin, the snow’s misery is compounded by Fox River flooding. Water is four feet deep in some parts of the city. Some of the same locations buried in snow today had 70-degree temperatures last Friday.

In today’s Peanuts strip, Charlie Brown’s team wins a game when Linus and Lucy’s little brother Rerun draws a walk. Four games are played in the majors today. In Milwaukee, the Brewers’ home opener is postponed by the snowstorm. Boston Red Sox infielder Luis Aparicio says his son is under 24-hour guard back home in Venezuela due to kidnapping threats. In Augusta, Georgia, Tommy Aaron wins the Masters; the last two rounds were delayed one day after heavy rain postponed Saturday’s play.

On TV tonight, CBS airs Gunsmoke, Here’s Lucy, The Doris Day Show, and The New Bill Cosby Show, a variety series with cast members including Lola Falana and Foster Brooks, and an orchestra led by Quincy Jones. ABC presents The Rookies and the 1965 theatrical movie Situation Hopeless . . . But Not Serious, a World War II comedy starring Alec Guinness, Robert Redford, and Mike Connors. NBC shows its own theatrical movie set during World War II, The Secret War of Harry Frigg, a 1968 drama starring Paul Newman. It’s preceded by an episode of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. Lou Reed plays Toronto with Genesis opening. Queen plays the Marquee Club in London and Faces play in Oxford, England. King Crimson plays Paris, and the J. Geils Band plays at Hillsdale College in Michigan.

At WLS in Chicago, “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” by Vicki Lawrence makes a huge leap from #12 to #1 on the new music survey out today. Last week’s #1, “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)” by Deodato is down to #5. Between them are “Ain’t No Woman Like the One I’ve Got” by the Four Tops, “Killing Me Softly With His Song” by Roberta Flack, and “Neither One of Us” by Gladys Knight and the Pips. “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” by Tony Orlando and Dawn is new in the Top 10 at #6. The biggest mover on the chart is War’s “The Cisco Kid,” up nine spots to #12. Four songs are new on the survey; the highest debut is “The Twelfth of Never” by Donny Osmond.

Perspective From the Present: The Monday snowstorm and cold weather the rest of the week kept the Brewers from seeing the field until Friday. Charlie Brown’s victory was short-lived; at the conclusion of a story arc that took most of the month, the win was taken away when it was revealed that Rerun had bet on the game.

The snowstorm kept us out of school for a couple of days, which would not normally have been much of a problem, except that my mother was in bed with back trouble and in no mood to deal with boys aged 13, 10, and 6. Fortunately, Dad couldn’t do much around the farm because of the storm, so he was available for more wrangling than usual. Nevertheless, it was a pretty salty couple of days around our house.

Good Guys

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You probably never heard of Lou Gutenberger. He was was one of the original “Good Guys” on KSTT in Davenport, Iowa, and he died this past week at the age of 82. During its glory days in the 60s and 70s, KSTT was one of those larger-than-life local stations that just doesn’t exist anymore, and Gutenberger himself was one of the chief reasons why it loomed so large, at least to several Iowa radio people of my acquaintance. They tell of listening to him or meeting him as kids, and/or being inspired, encouraged, or mentored in their careers by him. Even if they hadn’t heard him or spoken to him in over 50 years (he left KSTT in 1968 after 13 years, and spent decades in Reno, Nevada, after that), they never forgot him, or what he did for them— even when he didn’t know he was doing it, just by walking into the studio every day.

Only a tiny fraction of people who end up in radio do it without being inspired to do it by somebody. My inspirations were the bigtime Chicago jocks I listened to from the time I was 10 years old, Larry Lujack and Fred Winston chief among them. I was well along in my career before I realized that I was also following in the footsteps of Stan Neuberger, the morning guy on our hometown station, who did as almost much to get me to school every day as my mother did. My conception of the service responsibility of a radio jock—to not just play music but to give the audience information they need and want—started with Stan and his colleagues at WEKZ.

Just as you don’t get into a field without inspirations, you don’t stay in it without people who, even if they don’t exactly mentor you, teach you by their example. As a young DJ, I learned a lot by watching my colleagues at KDTH, some of whom I have written about here. (I have realized in later years that, as a young idiot whose powers of observation were lacking, I didn’t learn as much as I could have from the KDTHers, and I regret that I didn’t pay closer attention.) In later years, I was fortunate to work for George Lipper and Gene Kauffman, two men whose main goals were to do good radio and do good in the community, and not merely to show a profit by any means necessary—goals more rare among owners and general managers than you’d like them to be. George taught me important principles involved with managing people. The single best thing Gene did for me wasn’t to hire me in 1990, but to fire me in 1994, because it forced me to make some necessary decisions about the future direction not just of my career, but of my life. I was past the age of 50 before I got the chance to work for John Sebastian, an industry legend who did more to make me a better jock in one year than anyone who’d come before him. I wish I’d worked for him when I was 30.

Considering the state of the radio industry today, I don’t know where the next generation of inspirations and mentors is going to come from. Radio jocks, and the craft of radio itself, have been devalued for a generation now, and the pandemic has only made it worse. It may be that the wheel has turned for good. Maybe there are no more inspirations to be found on terrestrial radio. Maybe the next generation of inspiration will be podcast hosts. It’s not for me to say.

I suppose it’s a cliché for an old geezer like me to yammer on about how good it used to be in the olden days and how everything sucks now. (Which could be this website’s mission statement some days, but I hope not every day.) There were probably old guys in Lou Gutenberger’s heyday doing the same thing: “Radio ain’t been worth a damn since the announcers stopped wearing tuxedos.” But I hope that radio, in some form as we have known it, will survive for a new generation. And I hope that the new generation finds inspirations and mentors somewhere. Because those of us who were lucky enough to have them treasure them, not just for what they meant to our careers, but for how they enriched our lives.

The Music Police

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(Pictured: Charlie Daniels, on the right, at Volunteer Jam in 1980.)

As I wrote last week, I got a lot of hate-comments on my World’s Worst Songs posts at Popdose, when I wrote there a few years ago. One that upset many was about “The Legend of Wooley Swamp” by the Charlie Daniels Band. Like “Taxi,” this extremely minor 1980 hit offended me because it aspired to tell a story but then didn’t bother.

Something bad is going on out there, way back in Booger Woods: “they say the ghost of Lucius Clay gets up and he walks around.” He does not materialize, neither does he creep—he merely gets up and walks around, like he was a coronary bypass patient on the second day. Clay was a greedy old man who kept his money in Mason jars, except “on certain nights if the moon was right / He’d dig it up out of the ground / He’d pour it all out on the floor of his shack / And he’d run his fingers through it.” . . . 

Some local boys try to steal the money and end up sucked into the swamp for all eternity, but the story is told in such a dull manner that it’s barely worth caring about.

Ultimately, “The Legend of Wooley Swamp” is remarkably lazy. If it were a creative essay in a high-school English class, it would get red-penciled: “needs more vivid detail.” In a more advanced class, the note might be, “lacks narrative drive.” It’s a first draft that got handed in when the assignment was due.

And people got Big Mad:


Well, as a matter of fact, I am the Music Police: Officer Yankee Asswell, at your service.

While I respect the fact that you don’t like the song. This condescending article does almost nothing to prove it’s “one of the worst.” And this is not just some ignorant listener who’ll buy into anything with some kind of southern accent. I know a good deal about music and storytelling.

Well if you say so, it must be true.

And anyway, it’s an interesting contrast that he understates these strange happenings. It would be a cliche if the ghost “materialized and crept around.” If he “gets up and walks around” we get a vague image, yes, but we get an image of both a the story and the narrator. We know he’s not going into much detail, and we feel like there’s a reason.

So, better writing through weaker metaphors, then? Next:

its a hell of a story and verywell written and composed.if you can do better id like to hear it. . . . 

Anybody who writes about music anywhere is going to get this from time to time: “Can you write a song?” I cannot. But you don’t have to be the cook to know when dinner was a flop.

Next: people want to figure out what it is about you that makes you so wrong:

Maybe if you weren’t a city-raised millenial, you might understand.

I was raised on a dairy farm, jack, and I’ll bet I’m older than you. No really, I am:

You pussies weren’t even born then anyway. CDB was not Southern rock. .38 Special, Molly Hatchet, LS, Allman Bros. were Southern Rock. I would suggest you look for some of the CDB concerts called Volunteer Jam to see what different styles of music we listened to before PC bullshit came along and destroyed music.

“CDB was not southern rock”? Charlie Daniels himself would have disagreed with that. And even though Daniels consistently outed himself on social media as a horrid right-wing bigot, I didn’t say one damn thing about his politics. Yet this commenter decided to defend him on those grounds anyhow.

Will say again: “what about”-ism is the lowest form of argument, but lots of folks think it’s persuasive:

Coming from a site called POP DOSE, and you people care what they think about a southern rock/country rock song? LOL I don’t believe they have the right to call anything lazy giving the state of rap and pop music. It gets far far worse than this song! For those who wont even listen to the song, at the point you opinion is invalid because it’s uneducated!

What’s most interesting about that last comment (beyond its borderline illiteracy) is when it was posted: in November 2020, eight years after the original post appeared. It’s so good to hear from my readers in a timely fashion.

Overnights, Weekends, and Holidays

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(Pictured: DJs and podcast hosts are often told to picture their typical listener. So here you are.)

There have been a few thinkpieces recently about the rise of podcasting during the pandemic year. I am not sure how they were counted, but there’s supposedly 1.95 million different podcasts now. But raw numbers aside, podcasting, which started as a way for independent creators to reach new audiences, explore niche topics, and/or express unusual points of view, is becoming the same vast, corporatized space as the record industry, in which a fraction of one percent of the total number of creators commands the bulk of the audience, with content tailored to that mass audience.

A lot of high-profile podcasts were launched in the past year by idle celebrities who might otherwise have been spending time on film or TV shoots. Whether these people actually have a goal in mind beyond making some money—whether they actually have anything to say, or anything worth hearing—barely factors in. Some certainly will. The Barack Obama/Bruce Springsteen podcast has some intrigue, and two smart, interesting people in conversation are unlikely to be straight-up dull, but it’s by no means clear how much value their thing will actually have: whether they will make fresh, provocative observations, or just exchange platitudes about What Makes America Great. Lesser celebrities invite lesser expectations. Many are putting their names and voices on work that is largely being done by others—they’re not self-producing in their own basement studios.

I have no illusions about my own humble podcast. More people will log onto Paris Hilton’s new podcast by mistake than have ever intentionally listened to mine. And in fact, I intended to put mine on an open-ended hiatus early last fall. Then I ended up in the damn hospital, and the podcast was the best format to tell the story.

Stories are the key, and ultimately, the point. Sports and current-events podcasts are useful, but the ones that people are most passionate about tell stories, in one way or another.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying I have some more stories to tell, about the life of a radio person at three different times of the day, week, and year: overnights, weekends, and holidays. You can listen here, or at your usual podcast providers: Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, and Stitcher.

I hope you’ll find it a worthwhile use of 17 minutes and 40 seconds, and if you don’t, at least it’s only 17:40. Your comments are always appreciated, either in the comments here or by contacting me some other way. Also welcome are likes and positive ratings, if you are listening on a platform where you can do that.

If you are a radio person, or you were a radio person, I’m interested in hearing your own stories about overnights, weekends, and holidays, and I’m sure many among the readership will be too.

I’ve been hard at work creating Internet content for you this week. A new Sidepiece will be in your e-mail later today. Busy busy busy. Nothing I get paid for, but still.

Imbecile at Work

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(Pictured: Harry Chapin, godfather of “World’s Worst Songs.”)

I used to have a wider audience than I do now. From 2008 to 2012, I wrote for CBS Interactive, after the company relaunched legendary New York City album-rock radio station WNEW as a website and Internet stream. I still can’t imagine by what alchemy they found me on this lightly traveled corner, but it was fun for a long time, at least when they remembered to pay me. (Many freelancers will tell you that the bigger the company, the harder it is to get paid in a timely fashion.) A little of the site survives at Internet Archive, but most of it is gone.

Between 2011 and 2013, I contributed to Popdose. At that time, the site was a vibrant pop-culture magazine that deserved an audience of millions—it was that good, with an excellent stable of writers and inventive content. One Day in Your Life appeared there for a while, as did a series about #1 albums (which also appeared at WNEW for a bit), and a series called World’s Worst Songs. Pieces on “Taxi” and “Same Old Lang Syne” that were first seen at this website appeared there, and lots of others written exclusively for Popdose.

I was looking for something else the other day and ended up rereading a few of my World’s Worst Songs posts, and I was amused by some of the reader comments.

Tell somebody that something they like sucks, arguing in detail, and they tend to get defensive, or angry, or mean, or weird. My criticism of “Taxi,” in which I suggested that Harry Chapin leaves out too much of the story to make it worth caring about, inspired a lot of people to suggest that the imagery is too subtle for my poor limited brain to comprehend—and then they went on to make subtle interpretations that the text doesn’t support: “What’s left unmentioned is that the girl is a prostitute (she was gonna be an actress, get it?).” Or they simply shake their heads at what an idiot I am: “She’s unhappily married and trapped. He’s moved past the whole thing because it was a long time ago. It’s really not that hard to figure out…..Sheesh!” That guy had it right, actually. That is the story, but a recap does nothing to respond to my point, which is that the story is poorly told.

Some of the other comments on the “Taxi” piece bordered on non-sequiturs. One was similar to several I got on “Same Old Lang Syne”: “Who hurt you to produce such bitterness?” As if the only reason one might be critical of a piece of art is because they have suffered a personal wound somehow related to it, or they have some emotional baggage or defect that comes into play. People respond to music criticism that way all the time, and it’s befuddling to me. (When someone says they don’t like a particular book or movie, nobody responds, “Wow, who hurt you?”) Another said, “Low blow. Harry Chapin prevented thousands of people from dying from hunger.” That’s true, but it’s also completely irrelevant. Chapin’s admirable record of philanthropy doesn’t make his record suck any less.

The comments of earnest folk defending a song they like need to be separated from those of Internet trolls. During the time I was writing, Popdose had a prolific one, a guy who used to excrete vicious nonsense on everyone’s posts (and not just at Popdose): of my “Taxi” post he wrote, “If the death penalty could be administered for risibly imbecilic music criticism, we’d have to direct the drone attack right over your home. Go get AIDS and die, you execrable piece of human garbage.” In the comments to a different post, he wrote, “Go gargle with razor blades, you fucking imbecile.” I did not feel like I was in personal, physical danger from him; he was only seeking attention. (I suppose there’s an argument that I should have felt threatened, and I might if it happened today, as opposed to 2013). But I ain’t mad about it, either. Of all the responses to anything I ever wrote anywhere, those two are my favorites.

Coming next week: more hate-comments. Coming this Friday: new podcast episode.

On the Subject of Pretty Songs

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(Pictured: the Stylistics, lookin’ good and singin’ pretty.)

Last week, writing about the 1972 hits “Betcha By Golly Wow,” “Rock and Roll Lullaby,” “Precious and Few,” and “Everything I Own,” the first word I thought of to describe them was “pretty.” But “pretty” is a loaded word. “It can be used to damn with faint praise,” I wrote, “to suggest that something is decent if you like that kind of thing, but not worth serious attention.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary seems to concur. True, “pretty” is defined as “pleasing by delicacy or grace” and “having conventionally accepted elements of beauty,” but the next definition is “appearing or sounding pleasant or nice but lacking strength, force, manliness, purpose, or intensity.” In the section on usage, M-W says “‘Pretty’ often applies to superficial or insubstantial attractiveness.” Even the etymology of the word gets into the act: “pretty” is derived from Old English and Old Norse words for “trick.” In other words, a sort of beauty that may deceive, or be other than it appears.

Regarding the usage of “pretty” and words related to it, there’s an argument that the dictionary sense of “beautiful” could apply to “Rock and Roll Lullaby”—“whatever excites the keenest of pleasure to the senses and stirs emotion through the senses”—because I am still moved by the emotional power of that record. “Everything I Own” moves me along the same scale, but not quite as strongly, or as far.

But what about the other two? Are they “lovely,” maybe? M-W says that “lovely” is “close to ‘beautiful’ but applies to a narrower range of emotional excitation in suggesting the graceful, delicate, or exquisite.” So “lovely” fits “Betcha By Golly Wow,” because the default for any Thom Bell-produced love song is probably “exquisite.” “Precious and Few” doesn’t seem to rise to the “lovely” standard, although it is clearly pleasant, nice, and attractive. That one’s pretty.

Let’s talk about the weirdest, and the most problematic, part of the definition of “pretty”: lacking “manliness.” (The word seems alarmingly retro, and I’m surprised M-W hasn’t modified the definition.) When Dick Clark played “Everything I Own” on American Top 40, he introduced it by saying, “this song in particular appeals to the girls.” Although he did not use the word “pretty,” it has been used by radio types to describe the kind of record that has mainly female appeal. Female appeal has always been important to radio: apart from certain rock and talk formats, most stations make music programming decisions with the intent of attracting women. Even the “classic hits” format, as distinct from male-leaning “classic rock,” is basically an attempt to jigger the music library to attract more female listeners.

But “female appeal” can also be a value judgment: “chicks will like this, but serious people [i.e., male listeners] will like it less.” And that sends us in another direction. In the history of modern pop music, girls and women were the original tastemakers. They swooned over Sinatra, hyperventilated over Elvis, and screamed for the Beatles, and they can take a great deal of the credit for making those acts into superstars. But at some point in the middle of the 1960s, around the time of Rubber Soul and Revolver, when “rock ‘n’ roll” turned to “rock” and first became a fit subject for serious cultural criticism, that changed. Now it was the opinions of men that determined the relative worth of the art. That’s not to say there weren’t female critics or that women stopped buying records. But the economic clout of girls and women buying records, as a judgment of the records’ value, started to matter less than what critics, mostly male, thought of the records.

If we’re going to start interrogating our unconscious biases—and we should—surely we should spend some time on the one that automatically assumes male opinions matter more.

Because it’s OK to be pretty. As I wrote in my earlier essay, “classic AM Top 40 radio was, to a great degree, built on pretty songs, pleasing melodies earnestly performed, for people to sing along with and/or fall in love to.” You can do worse than to listen to a pretty record, or to make one. It’s an aesthetic that’s fallen badly out of fashion in the 21st century, but that’s yet another direction, and one we’re not traveling today.