When All the Black and White Turns Into Colors

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Not gonna lie—it’s tough getting into the ol’ October frame of mind this year: the pure insanity of the news every damn day, the gut-clenching insomnia-causing terror about the election and its aftermath, the still-nagging-and-very-real fear of catching COVID, and never mind the thousand other little things that might get in the way even if this were a normal October.

But the fall colors are beautiful up here in Wisconsin, as always. The Mrs. and I have enjoyed some Sundays in the country, and we hope to enjoy a couple more. And we resolve, to the extent that we are able, to keep November and beyond in the intermediate distance.

If you have read this blog in a past October, you know how I am about this month of the year. And so it’s kind of inevitable that sooner or later I’d get around to a podcast episode about October, and here it is:

The episode is also available at the usual other spots if those are more convenient for you: Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, and Stitcher. You can also listen to all of the other episodes in those places, or find them here. And as usual, many thanks for caring about it, if you do.

Note to Patrons: This morning, I sent the first edition of The Sidepiece to subscribers. The Sidepiece is a free e-mail thing in which I intend to intermittently write about stuff that doesn’t fit the subject matter of this website. Check your spam filter. As I said the other day, it probably knows better what’s worthwhile. If you haven’t subscribed to The Sidepiece yet and would like to, go here

Festival Summer

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(Pictured: a scene on the road to Woodstock.)

The rock festival era was fairly short. It began in 1967 with San Francisco festivals at Mount Tamalpais and Monterey. Around the country during the next several years, festivals big and small were held, some at racetracks and fairgrounds with a great deal of forethought and regimentation, others ad-hoc with promoters putting up a stage in the country, inviting the tribes to gather, and hoping for the best. By the end of 1970, the era of the multi-day festival passed, as states and municipalities legislated them out of existence. After that, single-day festivals were the norm, such as the Concert 10 Festival in the Pocono region of Pennsylvania in 1972 and the Watkins Glen Summer Festival in upstate New York in 1973. From that point and down unto the present day, festivals were carefully planned and tightly controlled, leaving nothing to chance.

In retrospect, the two most famous festivals, Woodstock and Altamont, left plenty to chance, more than they should have for events attracting hundreds of thousands of people. That Woodstock became a cultural touchstone and not a humanitarian disaster—which is how it was portrayed by some media reports on that August 1969 weekend—was mostly due to good luck. Bad luck was bound to catch up eventually, and in December 1969, at Altamont, it did. But the fires of Altamont were outshone in memory by the glow of Woodstock, and in 1970, there were many attempts to recreate the Woodstock vibe for people who lived thousands of miles from Max Yasgur’s farm. In Wisconsin, the Sound Storm Festival, held in April 1970, was sprinkled with Woodstock-style fairy dust. On the weekend of June 26-28, 1970, the Iola People’s Fair gave attendees a taste of Altamont.

In 1970, Steve Benton of Beloit, Wisconsin, graduated from high school. He played in a rock band. And in that year, he attended both Sound Storm and Iola. In the latest episode of my podcast, Steve shares some of his experiences at both shows. I don’t think we made any groundbreaking historical discoveries in the course of our conversation, but if you’re interested in the festivals, you’ll enjoy hearing Steve’s stories about them. The episode is below.

After you listen to this episode, you might like to revisit the first episode of this podcast, posted last summer, which discusses Sound Storm and Iola as well as the Midwest Rock Festival, held at State Fair Park in suburban Milwaukee three weeks before Woodstock, and the Wadena Rock Fest, a northeast Iowa festival, in the summer of 1970.

You can find all of my podcast episodes at my Soundcloud. Episodes are available at Google PlayTuneIn and Stitcher, and can also be found at Apple Podcasts. If you visit my Soundcloud, you’ll find a link where you can kick in a bit of financial support to help defray the cost of producing the podcast and maintaining this website, if you choose.

Many thanks to Steve Benton for the conversation, and to Dan Bartlett for putting us in touch. If you like this episode, please share it on your social media feeds, and if your platform lets you give it a like or a positive rating, I hope you’ll do that.

Pressure Night

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Twenty-five years ago, something like 96 percent of American homes had radios, but only about two-thirds of homes have them today. And today, as the COVID-19 crisis continues, stations are plugging their streaming capability and their apps, but it will be hard to make up for the drop in the number of drive-time commuters, or people in offices, pulling down megahertz or kilohertz from the sky.

Since the crisis began, some radio stations have actually gained audience shares, however: listeners are turning to all-news stations and public radio in greater numbers than before. If listening to those stations becomes a habit, listeners may stick with them if and when the crisis eases. But if habits can form in a positive direction for radio, they can also form in a negative direction. Some stations may never get back the listeners who have left them for Spotify or Pandora or podcasts or whatever they want from a smart speaker.

If and when the COVID-19 crisis ends, radio’s competitive landscape will be a lot different. Profit margins will be even thinner than they were before. Nobody will blame advertisers for an unwillingness to pay pre-plague prices for post-plague audience numbers when those numbers are lower. That new economic reality, combined with massive personnel adjustments at the major chains and at smaller groups like the one I have been furloughed from, make it clear that the industry to which some of us hope to return will be vastly different from the one we left.

Thinking about all this makes me nostalgic for the way it used to be, so it’s a good time for another podcast episode, with more stories from my radio career. You’ll learn the meaning of Pressure Night, and you’ll find out what it’s like to introduce famous rock stars from the stage. I’ll tell you about the most embarrassing money I ever made. You’ll hear about the day I nearly killed a co-worker by accident, and the night I got overserved while I was on the air.

It’s below, and it can also be found at the usual other locations:  Google PlayTuneIn, Stitcher, and Apple Podcasts. To listen to other episodes, go here. And stop back tomorrow for another rebooted One Day in Your Life post.


The Fair and the Farm

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(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 PlayTuneIn, 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 here, and let me know what you think of it.

Random Radio Tales

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In every profession, people sit around and tell stories. Car salesmen have stories unique to them. Teachers have theirs. Computer programmers have theirs. Your field, whatever it is, has its stories. And I have mine.

And I suppose that every profession thinks its stories are more colorful than anyone else’s. Radio stories do have certain unique characteristics, though. The job involves more close encounters with celebrities than most other professions. Radio often attracts oddball characters whose personalities range from bent to twisted. Some of my friends and colleagues have partied with rock superstars, seen fellow jocks engage in hilarious or embarrassing behavior (or engaged in it themselves), and have in general had the kind of experiences that you tell about for years after they happen.

My best stories are pretty milquetoast compared to those some of my friends can tell. I did, however, meet some famous people, work with some weirdos, and see some shit. Some of my stories are in the latest episode of my podcast.

—That time a television legend came to my town
—The most surreal job interview I ever had
—The tale of an especially terrible boss
—Brief encounters with curious listeners

You can listen to the episode right here:



Episodes are also available at Google PlayTuneIn and Stitcher, and can also be found at Apple Podcasts, if you swing that way. I appreciate your comments on this episode and others. If you listen on a platform where you can give the episode (or my whole podcast) a like or a positive rating, I hope you will.

Have Yourself an Easy-Listening Christmas

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Once again this year, Taylor Swift’s new Christmas song notwithstanding, America’s most popular Christmas music is old stuff. Mariah Carey’s 1994 “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is near the top of the Hot 100 again, and so is Brenda Lee’s 1960 “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” New stars like Pentatonix and Straight No Chaser will take up some playlist spots at radio stations, but it will be with songs that are in some cases generations old.

(Digression: can we for cryin’ out loud stop considering the Pentatonix version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to be a Christmas song?)

America’s obsession with Christmas music we’ve heard before is cause for lamentation every year, although I suspect that the loudest lamentators (is that a word?) are people who listen to Christmas music hardly at all anyway. Nevertheless, they worry about the rut we’re stuck in, how the worst of the holiday perennials reveals the average American as a irredeemable philistine, and so on—even as the average American continues to give not one single damn about their opinions.

I have a theory about why we keep going back to the well with these old songs. It’s one of the topics of my latest podcast episode, “Have Yourself an Easy-Listening Christmas.” You’ll also hear what some easy-listening fans might have considered “weird long-hair music,” and you can win absolutely nothing by guessing the title of a holiday song. You can hear the episode right here.

In addition to Soundcloud, my podcast is also available at Apple PodcastsGoogle PlayTuneIn and Stitcher. Please enjoy it wherever you find it.