Category Archives: Radio Tales

The State of the Band

I spent most of a month earlier this spring on the road: 24 nights away from home, 3300 miles on my car, and many hours spent listening to my car stereo. Not much of it spent listening to my car radio, however.

Part of the problem is technical. I am an AM-first listener, and I suspect that the AM radio in the new stereo I put in my car just isn’t very good. I noticed a similar phenomenon in my 2018 model rental car last fall. AM isn’t much of a priority for anybody, so why should the makers of automotive sound equipment invest much in it? Also, the AM band is a lot noisier than it used to be, with more devices generating random electrical noise—compact fluorescent and LED lights, wi-fi routers, and even our cars themselves. (The FCC is considering whether to allow AM stations to transmit in an all-digital format, which would make the band less noisy—but would also require stations to buy new transmitter equipment and people to buy new radios.) The FCC polices AM less than it used to, partly because practically nobody is there to complain if a station is running an AM signal at the wrong power, or one that interferes with other stations. And AM stations are simply going dark, too—surrendering the license and/or selling the transmitter site to a developer rather than keep losing money broadcasting.

So between my radio and the state of the band, unless I was practically in the shadow of a tower, I got noisy signals, weak signals, and along vast stretches of highway, no signals at all.

And when it did pick them up, there wasn’t much to enjoy. Programming once easily found on 50,000-watt clear channels and 5,000-watt regional stations has migrated to FM stations—in some cases, to low-powered ones that cover the city of license only. What’s left on the AM band isn’t much: mostly religion and non-English-language programming. The latter is a victory for cultural diversity and community service, even if I don’t understand the language and it replaces programming I used to enjoy. Because the former is frequently listener- or foundation-supported and doesn’t have to appeal to advertisers, or to more than a handful of listeners, it can be laughably bad, although some people like it.

On Facebook groups, Reddit threads, or message boards devoted to AM radio, you will meet guys who think that AM radio would come back and be just as important and popular as it was from the 30s through the 80s if ownership groups and listeners would only love it enough. (Strictly speaking, they’re right, if delusional about its likelihood.) You will also meet the AM-is-already-dead group, whose members believe the true believers are humping a corpse, and who mock even the slightest suggestion that AM could possibly have any value to anyone.

In some places, AM remains viable. A number of AMs around the country remain profitable and serve a sizeable audience with quality programming—although many are long-established legacy stations in major markets, and most have FM translators themselves. There’s also a number of AM stations serving communities that major broadcasting chains don’t care about. But the days of AM being a mass-appeal medium everyone listens to are long gone, for technical, financial, and cultural reasons.

The latter is critical: unless a person already listens to AM, grew up with it, or has some sort of religious or ethnic reason to seek it out, AM doesn’t register with most people. And it doesn’t have to. Most people can get the entertainment or information they want somewhere other than AM: on FM, a station stream, a smartphone app, and so on. The true-believer prescription for broadcast AM—“put on unique formats people can’t find anywhere else and they will come!”—ignores the fact that it’s easier and likely more profitable, if profit can be made, to do that unique format on an FM signal or an Internet stream. Conversion to digital AM seems like throwing money at a problem without solving it, and it will disenfranchise a lot of the dwindling numbers of people who currently depend on AM.

One variation on the digital AM plan suggests stations convert to digital as they please, and between competing formats, “the marketplace will decide” whether digital AM succeeds. But that presumes the marketplace—forced to their choice by the factors I mention here—hasn’t already decided the fate of AM.

But that’s just my opinion. I could be entirely wrong. Your opinion is welcome in the comments.

Dubuque Days

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(Pictured: two Dubuque, Iowa, landmarks: the Washington Square Park gazebo and the Town Clock.)

During the first week of April 1979, the #1 country song was “I Just Fall in Love Again” by Anne Murray. Barbara Mandrell was in the Top 10 with a cover of the deep-soul hit “If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don’t Want to Be Right).” On the Hot 100, the Top Five were the Bee Gees’ “Tragedy,” “I Will Survive,” “What a Fool Believes,” Donna Summer’s “Heaven Knows” and “Shake Your Groove Thing.” Billboard‘s Top LPs and Tape chart was led by the Bee Gees’ Spirits Having Flown, the Doobies’ Minute by Minute, Dire Straits, Love Tracks by Gloria Gaynor, and Rod Stewart’s Blondes Have More Fun. In that same week, I got my first paying radio job, at KDTH and D93 in Dubuque.

It took a fair amount of stones to apply for a paying part-time radio job within a month of doing my first-ever shift on the college station. A couple of people I knew from school were already working at KDTH, and I must have figured why not me? I sent applications to both KDTH and WDBQ, and KDTH bit first. (When the guy from WDBQ called, I said I’d be willing to work for them, too, but “It’s either one or the other, son.”)

At the interview, I sold my thin credentials and glittering promise. They were enough to get me on Sundays from noon til 6. The shift involved board-opping the noon news and running a public-affairs program until about 12:30, then me playing DJ before the syndicated Sunday at the Memories, a nostalgia show that ran from 1:00 to 5:00. After that it was more news and public affairs, and then another half-hour of tunes and topics starring me. I also had to see to the automation system that ran the FM station, D93—change song reels when they ran out, pre-record the weather (which ran an incredible three times an hour in those days), and take transmitter readings for both stations.

I did nothing but Sunday afternoons for a while, although eventually I board-opped Iowa football on Saturday afternoons, played music on Saturday and Sunday nights, and even did the occasional weekend morning. The latter shifts came with their own challenges—Saturday mornings were very much like weekday mornings, with lots of stuff to fit in on a tight schedule, and I got very little training for it, which is to say none. Sunday mornings included a 30-minute buy-and-sell show (“no mattresses, guns, automobiles, or real estate”) that required me to take calls from listeners, usually the same people trying to get rid of the same crap week after week. One Sunday, it was my bad luck that all of the music reels on the D93 automation ran out during the show, and I was trapped on the air in the other studio with no way to get over there to fix it. The automation had a dot-matrix printer that recorded what actually ran, so that it could be verified against the scheduled program log. After I managed to get the music reloaded, it printed error messages for half-an-hour.

I don’t remember much about the program director who hired me, except that he was pretty much all business, he airchecked me on my very first day, and he left shortly after I got hired. He was replaced by a more affable guy who would remain the program director almost to the end of my tenure. I learned a lot from him, but he must have had a saint’s patience too, because I was really, really green, and I didn’t know what I didn’t know, while at the same time thinking I knew a lot more than I did. When I had the chance to work a fulltime gig at another station during the summer of 1980, he was kind enough to let me go and take me back in the fall; when I was looking for a fulltime job at the end of college in 1982, he thought enough of me to jigger the schedule and bring me aboard to do afternoons.

Forty years later, KDTH is still in my head as what a radio station ought to be—a well-equipped, well-run operation with a strong commitment to full service, deeply entwined with the community. Today, I stand on the shoulders of some of the broadcasters I met there. I was lucky to start my career in a place such as that.

The Long and the Short of It

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(Pictured: Wolfman Jack, who could put more of himself into 10 seconds on the radio than practically anybody.)

Tuesday’s post, about oldies radio in general and WDGY in the Twin Cities in particular, seems to have struck a chord amongst the readership, and I’ve been thinking about some other stuff in response to the response.

WDGY’s competitor for the Twin Cities oldies audience is Kool 108, which is part of the iHeart empire. Our friend Yah Shure (who worked at the original WDGY back in the day) points out that “Without [60s music], there’d be nothing to differentiate WeeGee from its far more powerful FM competitor.” That Kool 108’s ratings dwarf WDGY’s is no surprise. Yah Shure observes that WeeGee’s signal isn’t very good—I have never been able to pick up the FM translators after the AM goes dark at sundown—and their ownership isn’t doing much to promote the station. It seems entirely likely to me that some of the people who listen to Kool 108 would very much like to hear some 60s music alongside the 70s and 80s stuff, but they either don’t know that WDGY exists, or they can’t pick it up.

Yah Shure notes that WDGY is mostly a jukebox outside of morning drive. On some of my visits to the Twin Cities, I’ve also heard a jock on weekday afternoons, and sometimes not. I am not bothered by the jukebox aspect. In fact, I’m bothered more by the quality of the on-air work I’ve heard, which segues into another comment I got on my original post.

Larry Grogan tweeted me to say, “I was thinking about your piece, and then turned on Sirius only to be greeted by the 60s morning DJ, who drives me nuts. Then it occurred to me that his style and the style of his show is aimed at old folks. Very chatty, lots of talking to callers at length.” I hear similar stuff on WDGY. The morning guy is very talky, and I often find myself exasperated when he goes on past the point at which I need to hear anymore about whatever his topic is.

Going on at length does not make you a stronger personality. And it’s not what the old-school jocks did all the time anyhow. The best of the jocks I grew up with could express themselves uniquely over a 10-second intro. A worthwhile short bit can be more challenging to create than a long one. A lot of jocks either forget that, or they never knew it. A lot of the yammering you hear today is intended to express personality, but it doesn’t add any value: chattering at length about the obvious (ordinary weather, for example) or something not especially interesting (“Don’t you love corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day?”).

The Sirius/XM 60s on 6 morning guy is Phlash Phelps, who’s spent the majority of his career replicating a madcap style of 60s Top 40 despite being six years younger than I am. I haven’t heard his show, so I can’t speak to it. I occasionally hear the jocks on 70s on 7, and they, too, are replicating an older style: that of the ballsy-voiced “puker.” And these stations aren’t the only ones. When I was in New York a couple of years ago, I listened to the fabled WCBS-FM and noticed how jokey every jock was. After a while, it was off-putting. I wanted them to stop trying to hard to entertain me and just let the music do it.

A lot of DJs are tempted to constantly show off how cool and funny they are. (I certainly am.) But not everything has to be a bit. Sometimes, as my former program director Pat O’Neill frequently reminded me, title and artist is enough. And as Larry’s comment makes clear, that talky old-school style can drive away a listener for whom it isn’t an attraction to begin with.

It does not occur to me, when I’m on the air doing Saturday at the 70s (or at any other time), to ape the style of a 70s jock. At most, that style inspires me—the compact wisecracks of a Larry Lujack, the effortless delivery of a Casey Kasem, the boss-jock talkup skills of a Kris Erik Stevens. But I’m doing the show in 2019. We know stuff today, about how people listen and what people like, that we didn’t know in 1969 or 1979. The things we know include A) not everything has to be a bit and B) title and artist is sometimes enough.

What a Day for a Daydream

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I wrote here last winter about the experience of listening to music on AM radio. There’s just something about that sonic atmosphere, and the oddly backward way that the lesser fidelity of the AM band makes the music sound better than it does on FM or CD. I have also written in the past about WDGY, an oldies station in the Twin Cities, which is one of my favorite stations anywhere in the country. It’s not the original “Wee Gee,” it’s a modern-day reboot with the same call letters, actually licensed to Hudson, Wisconsin, with a daytime-only AM signal on 740 and a couple of low-power FM translators.

I notice, on my yearly trips to Minnesota, that the close edge of the WDGY library keeps advancing—a couple of years ago you wouldn’t hear music made after 1978, last year it was 1979, and I expect to hear a song or two from 1980 on this trip. But unlike a lot of oldies stations, it has yet to age past the music of the 1960s, which is still a vital part of the station’s library.

Your typical good times/great oldies radio station has long since dumped music from the 60s. If you graduated from high school in 1968, you’re pushing 70 now, and few stations are interested in programming to you. The received wisdom is that if a listener is going to be with them for only nine minutes at a time, they’d better not risk playing any song that isn’t part of that listener’s direct experience. (I have no doubt that there’s audience research showing that oldies radio target demos prefer 70s and 80s music. Radio stations put a lot of faith in audience research and finding out what people like—but people can’t like what you don’t ask them about, and I wonder if stations are even asking about 60s music anymore.)

The assumption that people aren’t interested in music they did not directly experience is a faulty one anyway. When the Beatles first appeared on Spotify in 2015, they quickly became one of the most-streamed artists on the platform, and it’s unlikely that all those streams were coming from people who could remember the 60s. At some point in the 00s, I met a twentysomething bartender whose favorite band was Led Zeppelin and whose favorite radio station was 93.1 The Lake. He was born after John Bonham died and the band ceased to be. Classic-rock stations recognize that even as they incorporate 90s bands like Pearl Jam and Green Day, 60s acts are still necessary for their success.

Nobody who’s into classical music would say that Bach and Beethoven are irrelevant because their music is too old. And it occurred to me the other day that the music of the 1960s is a sort of classical music now. The greatness of Bach and Beethoven is undisputed; their music continues to be acclaimed, and anyone claiming classical musical literacy had better know something about who they are and what they wrote. The same is true of the top 1960s stars: if you like hip-hop, you’d best know about James Brown and Sly Stewart; if you like Ed Sheeran and other singer/songwriter types, you’d best know about Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell; if you like the brand of girl power espoused by Taylor Swift, Pink, and Beyoncé, you’d best know about Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield.

In 2017, after another trip up here and more time spent listening to WDGY, I wrote about the way pop music has gotten slower and sadder as time has passed, and how pop records are more likely to be in a minor key today than at any time in history. The percentage of major keys and sprightly tempos was far higher in the 60s. The world was full of trouble back then, too: kids were getting shipped off to the ‘Nam, their parents were getting divorced, war and famine were on the front pages every day—but pop music was not nearly so bereft of joy as it’s been for nearly a generation now.

Sixties AM-radio pop is one of the best mood elevators I know. Flying down the interstate on a bright afternoon, car window cracked, spring in the air (should spring ever come), who wants to gaze at one’s navel feeling morose when you could ride with the Lovin’ Spoonful? What a day for a daydream, indeed.

If I have missed something, big and obvious or small and subtle—always a possibility—I hope the radio programmers and knowledgeable bystanders in the crowd will weigh in.

The Spring of Our Discontent

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(Pictured: the Pointer Sisters circa 1980. Not exactly rock ‘n’ roll.)

It was the spring semester of 1979 at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, and at WSUP, the campus radio station, some of the jocks were a little discontented.

Each year, at the end of the fall semester, a new executive staff was elected: people ran for various management positions and were chosen by ballot, and the new staff would take over in January. WSUP had been playing the hits like a Top 40 station for a long while, and it even had jingles singing the call letters. But in January 1979, the new executive staff decided to dump the Top 40 elements and turn WSUP into an album-rock station.

Platteville is in the far southwestern part of the state, deep in farm country, about 70 highway miles from Madison and 20 miles northeast of Dubuque, Iowa. Platteville’s population back then was about 10,000. The university enrollment in 1979 was another 5,000 or so. While there were some kids from Milwaukee and Madison, a significant plurality came from small towns and cities in Wisconsin, and they pretty much reflected the farm-country demographic. Thinking back, I can recall maybe a half-dozen minority students in the broadcasting program the whole time I was there. If those numbers held across campus, that would have made the school more than 95 percent white.

While a program director is the person in charge of day-to-day on-air stuff, a music director has a great deal of influence on the station’s sound. As it happened, an African-American student had been elected music director in December. And although he was onboard with the decision to adopt an album-rock format, he programmed music so that WSUP became an album-rock station with a distinct R&B/jazz/funk flavor.

While there was a format clock to follow that specified which categories of music to play and when, the jocks had some latitude to pick and choose within many categories. We could go back into the record library closet and dig for obscure oldies if we wanted to. But the current music categories were fairly limited—we had to play whatever was in the studio bin. And that’s where the R&B, jazz, and funk were the heaviest. So a jock might find himself playing a set of Cheap Trick, Led Zeppelin, and Cream—followed by Bobby Caldwell singing “What You Won’t Do for Love.”

A lot of the jocks—most of whom were white boys between the ages of 19 and 22—didn’t like it much. In the disco-drenched spring of 1979, we felt we were being asked to play a lot of music that didn’t belong on an album-rock station. We wondered why so many current rock hits were missing, and why we were playing Pointer Sisters album cuts instead.

I cannot say that there was general racial tension around the station because I don’t remember that. But I do remember to complaining to friends (and hearing them complain as well) that the format was schizophrenic—and too black for a campus with such a small minority population.

One day on the air I came out of a set that rocked pretty hard and said, “You aren’t gonna hear that stuff at Studio 54.” It took 30 seconds for the music director to come into the studio and tell me that he considered my comment to be a personal insult.

He wasn’t wrong.

I don’t know what went on behind the scenes among the executive staff as the semester went on. I was still only a freshman, and not entitled to be plugged in to any of the high-level decisionmaking. But I seem to recall that by springtime, we were rockin’ a little bit more and funkin’ a little bit less. And if I’m recalling correctly, the music director left school at the end of the semester. In the fall, his replacement turned us into the kind of album-rocker we thought we were going to be in the spring.

I’ve got no philosophical point to make here and no conclusion to draw. This purpose of this post is simply to narrate an incident from 40 years ago this spring.

It seemed like a big deal then, as many things do in the moment, as many things do when we’re 19. Looking back, maybe I wish that 19-year-old-me had been a little more open to things that didn’t comport with his opinion of the way the world should be.

And not just in that instance.

The Coolest Place I Ever Worked

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Last fall, at the end of October, I missed a minor milestone: 10 years since the radio company I work for pulled the plug on 93.1 The Lake, the coolest place I ever worked.

Back in 2004, I ran into a college classmate of mine who was doing afternoons on the station, and he suggested I apply for a part-time gig, but apart from making a call to the program director (and leaving one of those convoluted voicemails you regret), nothing happened. I ran into my classmate again a couple of years later and he urged me to apply again. This time it went a lot better. There was a new program director, we hit it off immediately, and it didn’t take long before he offered me a job. Breaking a drought of something like eight years without doing a music show on the radio, I started working weekends in the summer of 2006. It wasn’t long before my gig-economy lifestyle made me the main weekday fill-in guy also.

It was a joy to be on the air at The Lake, and to listen to it when I wasn’t. It was a deep-cuts classic rock station, full of “holy smokes I haven’t heard that in years” musuc: the first time I got to play “Lake Shore Drive” by Aliotta, Haynes and Jeremiah, it was a religious experience. But after I’d been there a while, the program director who hired me got fired. He wasn’t replaced, exactly; the operations manager with responsibility for the station took over the programming of it. He rebranded us—most of the deep cuts were dumped, especially from the 60s and 70s, and they were replaced by mainstream stuff from the 80s and even the early 90s. It was still cool, and still deeper than many classic-rock stations, but it was never quite the same to me.

The original format was based on a Chicago station called the Drive (which still exists today), a thinking fan’s classic-rock station, and we were encouraged to talk about the music like experts. But that positioning wasn’t as appealing as we hoped, apparently. It was explained to us that we were perceived like the person at a party who thinks he’s too cool for the room. So it may not have been a coincidence that one aspect of the rebranding kept us from talking to anybody for a while—the station ran jockless for a period of weeks.

(After I’d worked at the Lake for a while, I was traveling in Chicago and listened to the Drive. It really was remarkable how closely we’d cloned them. All except for the jocks. Top to bottom, the Drive’s lineup of brand-name Chicago rock-radio legends didn’t sound as good as ours.)

In both of its incarnations, The Lake played great music, ran attractive promotions, and encouraged us to both have fun on the air and serve our audience with stuff worth caring about. But nothing lasts forever. One day in October 2008, I got a call from the operations manager saying that The Lake was no more. It was being replaced by the rhythmic CHR format that was already running on another, weaker signal in the building, a format that remains on 93.1 in Madison today.

I had started working for another station in the building by then, so I had a place to go after The Lake was gone. Its studio stayed empty and silent for several months. The memos and the artwork stayed on the walls, and I’d go in there from time to time and think about how it was like a neutron bomb had hit the place, taking out the people but leaving the infrastructure intact.

Just as every radio jock has stories about working at the badly run station in the nowhere town, we all have stories about the most fun we ever had, the best place we ever worked. The Lake is mine. Over a decade since its demise, its imaging liners and music library are still on the company servers. I’m told that one of the engineers used to fire it up and listen to it downstairs in the shop. And why not? It’s what I’d do.

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