Several eternities ago, back on March 12, while I was on what was supposed to be a three-week trip to Minnesota, I tweeted the following: “As long as I’m not quarantined, my station’s building is open, and ICE/CBP isn’t outside my door with guns to keep me inside, I’m going to work.” But after the trip ended early, on Sunday the 15th, and once I got back home, the time came to decide whether to actually do it. And I wavered a bit. The Mrs. works at home; she’d been isolated for a week, and if I could keep from catching anything I hadn’t picked up already, maybe it was best for me to stay isolated too.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t. Ann and I talked it over, and radio people should do radio, especially in a time such as this. So I plunged back into the usual routine early last week, filling in on a couple of night shifts and a couple of middays. And this week, in keeping with the role I’ve had for these many years, I’ll be plugged in wherever they need me to be.
Like other radio stations, mine has taken whatever steps it can to protect the people who have to work. The studios are supplied with cleaning products, and we’re all keeping our distance from one another. I think we all know that it’s not going to be foolproof. People are going to get sick eventually. But we aren’t going through our days worrying about that.
(One might argue that’s what the nights are for.)
Old radio guys like me came up in the business when it was in the DNA of radio stations to operate in the public interest, convenience, and necessity. When news broke or a crisis happened, we snapped into service mode automatically, if only by following the cues of the veterans around us. For younger broadcasters, there’s maybe a learning curve. If you view yourself mainly as an entertainer, it’s another thing entirely to become a conduit through which life-and-death information has to flow. A lot of radio stations don’t have news departments anymore, so it’s up to jocks to be the journalists. And who are the grizzled old veterans to serve as role models for them?
I guess it’s gonna have to be me.
You can take a cue from covering severe weather. When you talk about a tornado, blizzard, or hurricane, people are gonna be hanging on your every word, so you have to be credible. You have to get stuff right. You have to rely on good sources. Don’t hype, but don’t downplay the seriousness either. But unlike severe weather, which lasts a few hours in most cases, or a few days in the case of a blizzard or a hurricane, the crisis we’re in right now is going to last far longer. How are we to maintain that sense of purpose, that credibility, that seriousness, for months on end?
You’ll need to find the right tone, and to do that, don’t forget who you were before this all started. In my case, I always try to present information I think my audience will find entertaining and/or informative, although last week I leaned more toward informative. However, last week, I also couldn’t resist making a joke about how after Prince Albert of Monaco was diagnosed with the virus, he’d be spending his two-week isolation in a can. But when it’s time to talk about the impact or potential impact of the virus on our listeners, in our home towns, whatever we say needs to be delivered with an underlying sense of serious purpose.
A sense of serious purpose will have to be our lodestar as the crisis deepens, and as it starts to affect each of us personally. Somebody pointed out on Twitter on Friday night that jokes about the virus and about quarantine are going to be a lot less funny once people we know get sick or start dying. Right now, I don’t know how that’s going to affect me as a radio personality—how it’s going to change what’s appropriate to me to do on the air—but I suspect that by this time next week, I will.
Consultant Fred Jacobs collected some stories about life on the air in the early days of the coronavirus crisis. Read ’em here.
(Pictured: Robert Shaw, Robert Redford, and Paul Newman in The Sting.)
The March 23, 1974, edition of Billboard magazine featured several stories on various efforts by Congress and the record industry to stop piracy. Various firms have been selling tapes of copyrighted music, taking advantage of loopholes in the law. The FCC is considering whether copyright information could be electronically encoded within the audio of records, tapes, commercials, and other broadcast material to deter pirates. Officials at the CBS and ABC radio networks are in favor of the idea, but they want at least a year to test out potential effects of encoding on audio quality, as well as its effect on the networks’ own encoded signals, which are used to send alerts to affiliates, and to switch programs automatically.
In other news:
—Ringo Starr and Harry Nilsson have signed a deal with producer Michael Viner to appear in and provide music for a mixed live-action/animated movie called Ringo’s Night Out. Viner and Nilsson have already collaborated on Til Sex Do Us Part, which Viner describes as “a highly artistic X-rated movie which has been well-received in Europe.”
—A number of DJs have either been streaked by someone while on the air, or gone streaking themselves. Exorcist Records released “Streaking” by Zona Rosa and had it delivered to progressive FM stations in Los Angeles by a streaker. The story concludes: “If you haven’t been personally streaked this past week, perhaps it’s only because you’re un-streakable.”
—The ninth annual Academy of Country Music Awards show will be on March 28 and broadcast on tape delay as part of ABC’s Wide World of Entertainment late-night series. It’s the first-ever telecast of the awards. Charlie Rich and Merle Haggard lead the nominations with five each. Roger Miller will host; presenters will include Dennis Weaver, Bob Eubanks, and Barbi Benton.
—The “Talent in Action” section reviews a Long Island performance headlined by Humble Pie with Spooky Tooth and Montrose; Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie at Carnegie Hall; Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton in Oxnard, California; and a New York City showcase for an unsigned bluegrass band called Breakfast Special, which is opened by Buckingham Nicks, which “offered both promise and problems in a brief but telling set.” After remarking that Lindsey Buckingham’s role as lead guitarist and lead vocalist “seems a bit taxing,” reviewer Sam Sutherland says, “Ms. Nicks also encounters problems, chiefly in her solo style, which points up the occasional roughness of her voice and the strident quality to her top end that makes duets bracing but proves less fruitful when she takes the stage alone.”
—Since last August, eight Canadian acts have appeared in Billboard‘s “New on the Charts” feature, giving Canada more than any other country including England. David Foster of the Vancouver-based group Skylark says that he believes Canadian musicians would take as predominant a position in 70s pop as English musicians did during the 60s. Apart from Skylark, the new Canadian hitmakers include Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Bill Amesbury, Wednesday, Ian Thomas, newsman Gordon Sinclair (whose spoken-word tribute “The Americans” had been a hit earlier in the year), and Terry Jacks.
—Jacks is just off three weeks at #1 on the Hot 100, but it’s likely that most popular musician in America at the moment is one who’s been dead since 1917. Three albums of Scott Joplin rags are in the Top 10 of the Best Selling Classical LPs chart; Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” recorded by Marvin Hamlisch, debuts on the Hot 100 this week at #88. The album “The Entertainer” comes from, the original soundtrack of the movie The Sting, is at #15 on Top LPs and Tape. That chart is topped by Barbra Streisand’s The Way We Were; Greatest Hits by John Denver is #2. The top 10 on the album chart also includes Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan’s Planet Waves, Band on the Run, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and Tales From Topographic Oceans by Yes. The new #1 on the Hot 100 is “Dark Lady” by Cher. “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks is at #2.
Perspective From the Present: This same week, Cash Box reported that Til Sex Do Us Part would be released in New York and other cities in April. That doesn’t seem to have happened, and in fact, I can’t find any evidence of a movie called Til Sex Do Us Part being released anywhere until 2002, and it’s not the one Viner and Nilsson supposedly produced. As for Ringo’s Night Out, Viner spent $15,000 on a “pilot” for the film, which got a screening for potential investors in June 1974, but it didn’t impress enough of them, and the full film was never made.
(Pictured: Freddie Mercury and Brian May, on stage the same week I bought A Night at the Opera.)
I have written previously about my 1976 daybook, which I crammed with trivia, sports scores, and little notes about the ongoing life of 16-year-old me. The entry for March 12, 1976, shows that I bought the album A Night at the Opera by Queen on that day. I did most of my record-buying at shopping-mall stores in Madison, but since March 12 was a Friday, I suspect I picked it up somewhere in my hometown.
I was, like many others who bought the album that spring, inspired to lay my money down by “Bohemian Rhapsody.” In mid-March 1976, it was nearly six weeks away from reaching its peak of #9 on the Hot 100, but it had already hit #1 in cities across the country. In Chicago, WLS didn’t chart it until the end of February, but for the week of March 27, it went from #20 to #5, and to #1 the week after that, the first of five weeks at #1.
I listened to A Night at the Opera constantly for a year or two before putting it on a shelf and pretty much leaving it there. But I listened to it again not long ago, and I may listen to it more often in the future, because while it’s as familiar as the weather, it’s also mighty good. Listen to it here (and watch, because there’s some vintage video) while I rank the tracks.
12. “God Save the Queen.” It was inevitable that they would record this at some point, but it’s a throwaway.
11. “Sweet Lady.” I am trying to listen with two sets of ears: the ones I have now, and the ones that absorbed this album multiple times a week in 1976. I think I like “Sweet Lady” more now than I did then, but I like other songs better, so it ranks down here.
10. “Death on Two Legs.” I always wonder what my parents thought when they heard me blasting some guy singing “insane, should be put inside, you’re a sewer rat decaying in a cesspool of pride.”
9. “I’m in Love With My Car.” I got my driver’s license while “Bohemian Rhapsody” was high on the charts, and I liked this song more then than I do now.
8. “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon.” I was tempted to rank this and “Seaside Rendezvous” together, campy vaudeville-style tunes that they are, but I didn’t, for reasons I’ll explain below.
7. “Love of My Life.” This is pretty campy too—those harp flourishes take it over the top—although I suspect that Freddie Mercury is completely sincere in his delivery of it.
6. “The Prophet’s Song.” When I was playing the album in 1976, I would frequently skip this, the first cut on side 2. I like it much better now; the stacked choruses, voices multiplying voices, are every bit as impressive as the similar choral effect on “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
5. “Good Company.” Inspired by traditional jazz of the 1920s, this song is responsible for teaching me the verb to dandle: “Take good care of what you’ve got, my father said to me / As he puffed his pipe and Baby B he dandled on his knee.” If you always heard it as “dangled,” I get it. I’d probably have thought the same thing if the lyrics weren’t printed on the album jacket.
4. “Seaside Rendezvous.” I was re-listening to this album in the car, and “Seaside Rendezvous” was the last song I heard before I got out. I sang it to myself, over and over, for the next couple of hours. Like “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon,” it hasn’t got much to do with rock ‘n’ roll, but there may not be anything more purely pleasurable in the whole Queen catalog.
3. “You’re My Best Friend.” I think I have said in the past that this is the best thing on A Night at the Opera. I’m inclined to think that only when I’m not listening to the rest of A Night at the Opera at the same time.
1. (tie) “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “’39.” I am unable to resolve the conflict between 1976 me and 2020 me. I liked “’39” back in the day, but I adore it now, for its gorgeous wall of sound and the sad story of time travelers whose trip has unexpected consequences. As for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” as much as I thirsted to hear it over and over back then, I really don’t need to hear it again now. But when I do, I’m impressed as much by its sheer audacity as I am by the production itself.
(Pictured: a farm near Madison, Wisconsin. Photo taken in 1945.)
With the world shutting down over coronavirus and people planning to stay inside (with no sports to watch), it’s a good time for me to put up a new podcast episode. It’s one of those I warned you about—one that has nothing to do with music or radio. If you want to catch up on the rest, eight other episodes are available at the usual spots: Google Play, TuneIn, Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, and my archive.
If I ever wanted to be a farmer like my father, I don’t remember it. Radio consumed me before my 11th birthday. The summer I turned 17 I got a job in town, and I never looked back. Farming is the hardest work I can imagine, and it’s not just physically hard. Your success depends on the whims of forces you cannot control, and the weather is only one of them. You have to be a little bit of an expert in everything, from horticulture to veterinary science to engine maintenance to accounting to animal husbandry to other things most people are not expert in one of, let alone a dozen or more.
At the time Dad sold his cows, he had milked cows twice a day, seven days a week, for over 50 years. Seven days a week. He milked cows in the morning, did other chores and/or planted and/or harvested crops all day, and then milked cows again that night. He worked maybe 15 hours a day, six days a week. If we went somewhere as a family on a Sunday, it wasn’t until after the morning milking was done, and we had to be home in time for the evening milking. (He worked only six or eight hours on those days.) If Dad had the flu, he milked the cows. If it was 20 below, he milked the cows. If it was 95 in the shade, he milked the cows.
It’s no wonder I never aspired to that life. It’s a wonder anyone did, or does.
The farm is a fine place to be from, however. I suspect it shaped me in ways I barely realize, even now, 40 years after I moved away.
The latest episode of my podcast is two separate stories linked by the farm. The first is about some of my years as a 4H kid. Even if you were not burning to be a farmer yourself in that time and place, 4H was what you did. I stayed with it long after I had decided farming was not for me. The second is about the farm itself. You and I will take a long walk around the place. I’ll show you what’s still there, what used to be there, and talk about what I remember.
Last fall, when I asked you to vote for the episode you’d like to hear next, this one very nearly finished first in the poll. So listen below, and let me know what you think of it.
(Pictured: the Bangles.)
On the weekend of February 22, 1986, the radio station I worked for carried American Top 40, and here’s some of what was on the show.
39. “Manic Monday”/Bangles. If this isn’t one of the most beloved hits of the 80s, and I’m not sure that it is, it ought to be.
36. “Go Home”/Stevie Wonder
35. “Let’s Go All the Way”/Sly Fox
3. “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going”/Billy Ocean
During the 80s, Casey frequently filed “special reports.” Some of them were timely, as in the bit about the forthcoming opening of Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park that ran between Stevie Wonder and Sly Fox. But some of them aren’t worth the time, as in the lengthy bit about the longest river in the world before Billy Ocean’s song (which was from the soundtrack of the now-forgotten movie Jewel of the Nile).
38. “Night Moves”/Marilyn Martin
34. “Another Night”/Aretha Franklin
25. “He’ll Never Love You (Like I Do)”/Freddie Jackson
21. “Digital Display”/Ready for the World
It’s possible that my station didn’t play Marilyn, Aretha, and Freddie—the syndicator providing our music didn’t add everything that made the Top 40, often omitting big R&B crossover hits. I remember “Digital Display” only because I’m still trying to understand the popularity of Ready for the World, who somehow got to #1 in 1985 with “Oh Sheila,” which is three minutes of quite literally nothing.
35. “(How to Be a) Millionaire”/ABC. Sweet mama “(How to Be a) Millionaire” is exhausting. You rarely hear people trying so hard to be whatever the hell they think they are. (And I hate those parentheses in the title, too.)
34. “Say You, Say Me”/Lionel Richie
20. “The Sun Always Shines on TV”/a-ha
Consider that these songs were all likely written on a piano or single guitar first, and only later turned into echo-drenched epics consumed by their own self-importance. Lionel gets away with it by being likeable, but as I listened to “The Sun Always Shines on TV,” I found myself wondering how many radio stations added it solely because “Take on Me” had been a big hit and not because anybody actually liked it. I have already told you what I think of “Russians.”
30. “Spies Like Us”/Paul McCartney. The theme song from an extremely minor Chevy Chase/Dan Aykroyd film, this was Paul’s last Top-10 hit until “FourFive Seconds” with Rihanna and Kanye West in 2016.
Less than four weeks after the Challenger disaster, Casey noted that AT40 had received many letters suggesting Long Distance Dedications to the spacecraft and its crew. (I did a full-body dry heave on spec imagining the worst possibilities.) The letter he chose was from cadets at the Air Force Academy, who told him that the son of the shuttle commander was a fellow cadet, and that they all felt a personal loss. They suggested “Come Sail Away” by Styx, which Casey introduced by quoting a lyric line: “They climbed aboard their starship / They headed for the skies.” Which gets it right. (That he used the rarely-heard-anymore 45 edit of the song was a bonus.)
Among the other features on the show, Casey answered a listener question about “heavy metal acts with the most chart hits.” His definition of “heavy metal” is probably neither yours nor mine, but here are the top five: Deep Purple Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Aerosmith, and at #1, KISS (with 18, including eight in the Top 40).
13. “I’m Your Man”/Wham
6. “The Sweetest Taboo”/Sade
I don’t think either of these got much airplay after they dropped off the Top 40, although “The Sweetest Taboo” is pretty good.
9. “Burning Heart”/Survivor
8. “Silent Running”/Mike and the Mechanics
7. “Life in a Northern Town”/Dream Academy
Here are more records on which the echo chamber is the star. Despite that, “Life in a Northern Town” is probably the best thing on the show.
Two segments after “Burning Heart,” Survivor is back for a Long Distance Dedication of “The Search Is Over.” I was always taught to maintain approximately an hour of separation between records by the same artist, a rule that still holds in a lot of places today, but this represented approximately 15 minutes of real time. It’s a strange choice considering the LDD could have run anywhere in the show.
1 “How Will I Know”/Whitney Houston. This record still gets daily airplay on adult-contemporary radio stations, which means somebody must want to hear it again, but not me.
After three solid years in a row for Top 40 music, 1986 represents a definite drop-off, although any year in which Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Paul McCartney are still making hits, and in which superstars like George Michael and Whitney Houston are on the way up, has something going for it.