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.

 

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.

J. T. and the Boomers

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(Pictured: James Taylor, 2005.)

When I was a kid, I sometimes imagined my life as a book. Each day was a page with part of the story on it. Each year was a new chapter. I can’t remember if I ever thought about who the author was (or if I ever considered that I was the author). It wasn’t something I spent a lot of time thinking about. It was just an image that popped into my head sometimes, at the end of a day, or the start of a day, on January 1, or on a birthday.

To the extent that we think about it at all, each of us has a story. Each of us could tell a tale that describes how we got from There to Here, a tale made up of angry confrontations, comedic set pieces, dramatic close shaves, and perplexing mysteries, with a supporting cast of heroes and villains and ourselves at the center, as the star.

Thinking of your life as a story and you as the star can have a side effect that’s something like the Heisenberg Principle: the idea from physics (grossly oversimplified here) that just by observing a phenomenon, you change the way it behaves. If you think of every day as a page in your story, or a scene from your movie, with you as the star, isn’t it possible that you start playing the part of You, as you imagine You to be, instead of just being you?

There’s a very good argument that we already do this, every one of us. I’d read about the phenomenon but had never seen it up close until I spent an evening with James Taylor, among 22,000 people playing the part of prosperous middle-aged boomers on a big night out. That realization and that night make up part of my latest podcast episode, which also wades into the question of why boomers keep listening to the music of their youth, and why Gen X and Millennials, for all their current OK-Boomer self-righteousness, are likely to keep listening to theirs. The episode is below:

This and earlier episodes are also available at Apple Podcasts, Google PlayTuneIn and Stitcher. I appreciate your earholes wherever you point them, and I also appreciate likes, positive ratings, and reviews if your listening platform allows you do to any of that. And I thank everybody who voted for this post in last week’s poll. If you voted for one of the other options, fear not. You’ll hear them eventually.

Delivering the News

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Most radio stations, and the corporate groups that own them, still understand that they have some responsibility to deliver information to the communities they serve. In a lot of cases, that information is rudimentary: traffic reports, sports scores, “three things you need to know.” The days when it required a fully staffed newsroom are long gone. Even stations that still do formal newscasts aren’t necessarily hiring reporters to do them. The newscasts you hear on your local station may be written and delivered by somebody whose main training is not as a journalist.

Somebody like me, for example.

Apart from a one-semester course in high school, I have never had any formal training in journalism. But as a young radio man, I was fortunate enough to work with highly skilled broadcast journalists, and I learned what to do by watching and listening to them. On the air as a DJ, I sometimes find myself in the position of having to deliver the news, not in the formal newscast sense, but when a big story breaks while I’m on the air. Then, too, I rely on the lessons I learned watching legitimate pros of my acquaintance do their jobs.

(One thing I learned from those pros is that they would have disavowed the highfalutin’ term “broadcast journalist.” They would say that they were “radio reporters,” or “newsmen,” as the gender fit.)

The long-delayed fifth episode of my podcast is called “Delivering the News.” It’s about my experiences playing at radio newsman, about some of the people who taught me how to do it, and some of the memorable breaking-news stories I have reported as a DJ. You can listen to it right here.

This episode and earlier episodes are now available at Apple Podcasts. You can also find them at Google Play, TuneIn, and Stitcher. You can subscribe at my Soundcloud, too. I hope you enjoy the new one, and I welcome your comments on it.