Let ‘Em Play

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(Pictured: Meat Loaf, who is not the subject of this post, on stage in 1978.)

This New Year’s Eve, it will be 25 years since my first all-request show on the classic-rock station in Davenport, Iowa. It was a one-time thing that later became a regular gig on Saturday nights for much of 1996 and 1997. As I’ve written before, the program director trusted me to know what was appropriate to play and what was not, and if I skated over the line, he was willing to forgive me. I built a collection of literally hundreds of my own drops and sweepers too. It was highly produced, interactive, and fun for everybody, including (especially) me.

There were certain songs I could have played every week and more than once—“Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” “American Pie,” Queen’s “We Will Rock You”—but I didn’t. I wanted to please the people who didn’t call as much as the regular callers. And I wanted to take advantage of the fact that for every five listeners who wanted to hear fking Meat Loaf again, there would be one who would surprise me with something cool, something I couldn’t get on the air fast enough.

This post is about two of my favorite listener requests.

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The Last Words

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(Pictured: a young man holds a sign in tribute to John Lennon, 1980.)

Mark was a colleague of mine, another part-time DJ at KDTH, a country station in Dubuque, Iowa, back at the turn of the 80s. He worked a 10-to-midnight shift on Mondays, and a few years ago on Facebook, he wrote about his experience on the night of December 8, 1980:

As I usually did about 10 minutes before my airshift was to begin, I found my way to the newsroom to clear the AP wire and prepare for a little sportscast I did after the 10:00 news.

The moment I arrived in the newsroom, the mechanical AP wire went absolutely apeshit, with a tremendous, clanging racket of bells such as I’d never heard. In those days they didn’t ring the warning bells on the wire often and when they did it was always news of some import, usually a flash or breaking news. I checked the wire just as the flash headline was printing out, JOHN LENNON SHOT DEAD.

Immediately, I ripped the story from the wire and ran from the newsroom into the air studio, and gave it to the woman I was about to replace on the air …. She read it on the air, choking up while she read it, and played “Imagine” immediately after. We unilaterally decided to play all Lennon or Beatle songs for the rest of the night, and none of the usually cantankerous country fans even called to complain.

While I was pulling my airshift on the AM station, the program director of our automated FM station called to ask the news guy and myself to dub off as many Beatle/Lennon songs as we could find and feed them into the automation system …. coming within an eyelash of airing “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” on the radio, the very night its singer and songwriter was assassinated….

Somehow, I managed to get through my airshift. Immediately after signing both stations off the air, I went up on the roof of the station as I often did, rolled up a fat joint, smoked it, and allowed myself a good cry. This horrible, obscene thing was just too much to bear. 

I looked back at Radio and Records to see how the industry reacted to the murder in real time. It devoted much of the front page of its December 12 issue to a montage of pictures and a written tribute. Inside, under the heading “The Last Words,” it was reported that John and Yoko spent three hours late in the afternoon of December 8 being interviewed for the RKO Radio Network, and how afterward, the Lennons caught a ride with the RKO guys to the Record Plant studio. The article mentions waiting for Lennon to sign an autograph for a fan outside the Dakota. We know now, of course, that the fan was Mark David Chapman.

The magazine also detailed how program syndicators were scrambling to accommodate the Lennon story, in many cases updating year-end programs that had already been produced. It was reported that “Watermark has dropped a regularly scheduled hour of its American Top 40 for this weekend in favor of a specially-produced retrospective on Lennon.” That did not actually happen, although Casey’s producers made available an alternate program segment that stations could drop into the already-produced show to replace “(Just Like) Starting Over,” which was at #4 for the week. The AT40 production staff was also forced to update a feature earlier in the show about the top posthumous acts of the rock era.

In the December 19 issue, it was reported that a radio station in Baltimore had planned a memorial benefit with proceeds going to a gun-control group, but its lawyers advised that the Fairness Doctrine might require the station to give an organization such as the National Rifle Association equal time to respond. The event was canceled, and the station instead donated proceeds from an earlier event featuring Beatles movies to one of Lennon’s favorite charities.

On the Contemporary Hit Radio page, columnist John Leader wrote about radio’s response to the murder, how stations tossed their regular programming out the window on that night, how they opened the phones just to let people talk, how they helped arrange public memorials, and more. Leader concluded:

Radio can and should be so much more than the playlist, commercial log, and jock schedule. Radio is communication on a very personal and basic level. Radio is entertainment and companionship. Radio is always there with the flexibility to respond to the needs of its listeners. 

Last week radio did itself proud in the worst and the best of times. 

Slice of Life

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(Pictured: I’d eat it.)

It happened at radio stations from time immemorial—somebody orders a pizza for lunch or dinner, and whatever they don’t eat sits on the counter in the break room for anybody to grab a slice. There’s not a single radio jock alive who hasn’t taken advantage of such good fortune. Sometimes it gets put in the station refrigerator instead of being left on the counter, but it doesn’t matter. We’re still gonna eat it, and we don’t care if it’s cold. But it seems to me that COVID-19 has killed the food-on-the-counter tradition. Most of us are not inclined to mess with stuff when we don’t know where it’s been. Hand sanitizer is not a good pizza topping.

(Digression: I tweeted general thanks to whoever made leftover pizza available at my station one day, and I got a response from Chicago radio legend Fred Winston, who was following me at the time, asking how long it had been sitting out on the counter. It was one of my greatest thrills in radio. Alas, Fred blocked me several years ago. I choose my heroes wisely and they don’t often disappoint me, but he did, and it still stings a bit.)

Also dead is the dish of candy on the desk. I used to cruise the sales office when everybody was gone, early in the evening or on the weekend, looking for a sugar fix, but I found nothing so often that I quit doing it. I once heard of a company that told people to take the candy dishes off their desks because somebody from their health insurer was paying a visit, and they didn’t want that person to see them. You could apparently fill up a drawer with Ding Dongs and Butterfingers if you wanted, but keep it out of sight.

(Further digression: I remember one especially long and stressful day at the radio station when, late in the afternoon, I found a package of Oreo cookies in my desk that I’d forgotten about. It redeemed the whole day.)

I occasionally joke on the air about having eaten exactly one million sandwiches in studios, but realistically, it’s got to be a few hundred by now. These days, it’s usually a pre-made sandwich from our neighborhood convenience store, which is cheap, edible, and best of all, simple. Simple is key, although my very first Christmas Day on the air, in 1979, I ate turkey and dressing in the studio, packed by my mother, leftovers from our Christmas Eve dinner.

Occasionally The Mrs. will suggest that I take leftovers from home, but I like to get out of the house precisely so I don’t have to eat what we’re eating at home.

I wonder if COVID will interfere with the broadcast-and-print newsroom tradition of Election Night pizza. In past years, you could be sure that everybody who worked on Election Night coverage was fueled by a slice or two. I have written before about a similar phenomenon that sometimes happens on radio station blizzard days. When staffers are likely to be shut in for a while, if only for a long day, food appears in the break room, either delivered or picked up from a grocery or convenience store. One blizzard day, the menu consisted exclusively of Doritos, Oreos, and Chips Ahoy. As one colleague said to me, “It’s not a blizzard, it’s a party.”

The company I currently work for has a fairly liberal attitude toward beer in the building. One of the stations does a regular feature with a local brewery, and it’s not unusual to find a few bottles at large in the fridge. We don’t drink ’em while we’re on the clock, but people who are done for the day have been known to crack one in the office, and nobody gets weird about it. Maybe that’s a Wisconsin thing, though.

Every profession has food-in-the-office stories, not just radio. If you have stories from your job, no matter what the job, please share them.

The Other Side of the Clock

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I’ve done a lot of stuff in radio, with one peculiar omission: in all my years, I’ve done one overnight. Not one overnight gig, but  a single overnight shift. I was simply never asked to do one. I did lots of 6- and 7-to midnights and on-air and automation-tending shifts that ran until 2AM, but the opportunity to do a full overnight show just never came up, except the one time. It was an 11P-to-5A shift if I’m recalling correctly, sometime in 1994 or 1995, when I was working part-time before trying to get out of the biz altogether.

Overnight radio today ain’t what it used to be, thanks to syndication and voice-tracking and auto-pilot. In big cities, you still hear a few live-and-local overnight shows, but even they are growing increasingly rare. Years ago, practically every voice you heard on stations large and small was live, local, and in real time.

The overnight shift could be a proving ground, where young talents earned their stripes, or a dumping ground, a place to put somebody good enough to hire but not good enough to promote. There were, however, certain people who became stars on overnights and never left. In the Midwest, Yvonne Daniels, Eddie Schwartz, Jay Andres, Franklyn MacCormack, and Mike Rapchak all became known far beyond Chicago thanks to long tenures on AM stations that blanketed much of North America. But other cities had overnight stars whose regional reach was enormous—Franklin Hobbs on WCCO in Minneapolis and John R on WLAC in Nashville are two from the middle of the country who have been mentioned here in the past. But overnight stars weren’t heard only in big cities. In smaller markets, too, there was almost always somebody with a sizeable following “east of midnight,” a phrase that seems to have originated at WLS in Chicago sometime around 1960, but was widely borrowed.

Midday jocks can often work a normal 7:30-to-3:30 or 8-to-5 day. Everybody else has to adjust. Morning people go in while it’s dark and are often home by noon; afternoon jocks get used to eating dinner at 8 or 9PM. But doing overnights is not merely an adjustment, it’s a lifestyle. Some overnighters sleep in shifts—a few hours after getting home in the morning and a few more before going back at night, which leaves time in the middle of the day for normal day-side life and/or a few hours of office work back at the radio station. Others take up full-time residence on the other side of the clock. If the working day runs from, say, 10PM to 6AM, they find it easier on their bodies to keep to something like those hours on their days off. Back in the day, stations themselves didn’t always make this easy—you wouldn’t give your afternoon jock a regular weekend shift from 2 until 6 on Sunday morning, but overnighters were frequently asked to do a regular Saturday or Sunday afternoon. But not everyone can live entirely on the night side. One big example: when you’re married to a day-sider. One overnight guy of my acquaintance reset his body clock every weekend because his wife insisted, so on Monday and Tuesday, he’d be half in a fog.

(Most of those who are married to radio people understand the life and accept its peculiarities. This woman did not, really. I suspected that she found her husband’s east-of-midnight job embarrassing, and radio itself vaguely disreputable.)

Overnight jocks frequently heard from truckers, nurses, shift workers, and other people who were grateful to have a friendly voice keeping them company during the long dark hours. What those listeners didn’t always realize is that the overnight jocks appreciated them too. It was (and is) a solitary occupation, being on the air after hours, especially in the overnight hours. It’s good for a jock’s morale to know that yes, there is somebody else up at this hour, and that what you do matters to them.

Overnight jocks tend to have the best radio stories, because weird stuff happens in the middle of the night. Unusual interactions with listeners on the phone were almost routine, but sometimes listeners would actually come knocking on the station door, like Richard Dreyfuss in American Graffiti. Since some amongst the readership have been overnight jocks (for more than one night), let’s hear some stories.

Tell It All Brother

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(Pictured: Kenny Rogers and the First Edition with drummer Mickey Jones on the right, 1970.)

It’s easy to forget that ubiquitous institutions, things that have been familiar forever, had to be conceived, built, and developed. It’s a rare vision that springs complete from the minds of its creators. The unfolding of that developmental process is why I am fascinated by the earliest editions of American Top 40.

The show from September 5, 1970, displays some serious growing pains, and its biggest problem is with its host. By the time the show launched in 1970, Casey had been a major-market radio jock for a decade in Buffalo, Cleveland, Oakland, and Los Angeles. But on this show, he just doesn’t sound good. He’s ragged and weird and amateurish at times, far more than on other shows from the late summer and early fall of 1970.

At the height of his career, Casey was one of the great communicators in media. You got the sense that he cared that you really heard what he had to say. But he wasn’t consistently that way during the first year of American Top 40. It’s not just his early tendency to rush—to move from point to point too quickly. On this show, the problem is greater. Often, he’s just saying words without being especially mindful of what they are, like his brain has already moved on, thinking of what he’s going to say or do next. Which is what radio jocks do when they’re winging it.

Just as important as what you say is how you say it. And mindfulness is the difference between somebody who is talking with you and somebody who is just talking at you. This is why I have come to rely so much on scripting my radio shows. I almost always have what I’m going to say in front of me before I say it, so when I say it, I can concentrate on communicating the intention of a thought I’ve already had, instead of having to simultaneously come up with a thought and how to communicate it.

(This is something I didn’t learn until I was literally 50 years old, which was about 25 years too late to advance my career.)

If you know what you’re going to say, and how, before you say it, you avoid poorly thought-out ideas like Casey’s tease for Neil Diamond’s “Cracklin’ Rosie,” which he says was inspired by a bottle of wine—only he sings the word “wi-i-i-i-ne.” I have to forgive that one, though, because I’ve done that: some combination of firing synapses makes you think something is a good idea in the moment, but the tape reveals that it was not.

Eventually, Casey’s shows would be largely scripted, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the show became The Show and the man became The Man only after that.

To the extent that this week’s show was scripted in advance, however, the writing is just not very good. An example: introducing “Tell It All Brother” by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, Casey wants to mention that the group’s drummer, Mickey Jones, recently played the vice president in a movie. But the way he does it is a horrible botch. He says, “The group’s drummer, Mickey Jones, told it all in a recent interview. Let me make this perfectly clear. He was vice president of the United States. Not in a dream, but in a movie, Wild in the Streets.” Which is horrid writing. Trying to get “tell it all” and an irrelevant Nixon catchphrase into the bit makes it incoherent. I had to go back and re-listen to the segment to decipher it, but listeners of 1970 did not have the luxury of rewind.

Eventually, Casey would become a master of the tease. But on this show, several teases hang awkwardly in space. It’s as if he has notes he wants to use somewhere but decides on the spur of the moment where to put them. One tease that is well-placed describes Tom Jones as “a guy who could stop the women’s liberation movement, if he wanted to, with a shake of his hips,” which is in keeping with the unconscious sexism of 50 years ago, but is also crappy writing. (And not the only time Casey would refer to the inability of women to keep from swooning over Tom Jones.) Also sexist, and also something he would do on other shows: he refers to 23-year-old Melanie and 25-year-old Anne Murray as “girls.”

Coming next: I stop banging on the host and start banging on the music. Some of it, anyhow.

Sunsets and Shellfish

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(Pictured: sunset in the Virgin Islands.)

When I was writing about WIBS, the radio station in the U.S. Virgin Islands that changed its call letters to WGOD back in 1985, it slipped my mind that my old boss, Gene, was doing radio in the Islands back in the 80s. He e-mailed to say that he was a friend of the man who built WIBS, and that after the station was sold, he told the new owner that there was no way that the WGOD call letters would be approved. “I nearly dropped over when I heard he got them.”

Gene said the new owner asked him to train his sales people. (“He had no clue about radio, he owned a trucking company.”) But the owner needed some training himself. Gene says that for religious reasons, the guy didn’t want to advertise restaurants that sold shellfish. “I told him then, you might as well beg for money because this is one of the top vacation destinations with abundant seafood, many of which have shells. You’re eliminating more than half of your prospective advertisers.” Swiftly, the owner got over his Old Testament issue, and WGOD is still on the air today.

The original WIBS “had beautiful views from one of the highest peaks in the VI,” Gene says. “The station had a large free-standing tower and the studios were built under the legs. The tower eventually came down in one of the hurricanes.”

(When I was working for Gene in the early 90s, I wondered why he’d leave the Virgin Islands for Iowa. I remember him telling me that he missed the weather. In the Islands, he said, it was sunny and 82 every single day except for three days in August when there would be a hurricane. That wasn’t the only reason he came back to the continental U.S., but for an old radio guy, it’s a persuasive one.)

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