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.)

Continue reading “Sunsets and Shellfish”

Wishbone What?

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(Pictured: Wishbone Ash, on stage in the 70s.)

The Federal Communications Commission isn’t what it used to be. Its main task today is to facilitate the efforts of giant television, radio, and Internet conglomerates to take an ever-greater stranglehold on the marketplace and to help the bankrupt ones stay afloat. While it occasionally hands out fines to broadcasters for various legal and technical infractions, the Commission is not an entity the average dumb-ass disc jockey thinks about anymore. But it wasn’t always that way, as this college radio story from around 1980 indicates. 

We will call her Kristin, because that is not her name. Kristin was a pretty good newscaster, but she wanted to be a disc jockey, too. Alas, she was not good at it—without a script in front of her, she got flustered easily, and as a result, she didn’t have a great deal of confidence. That made nearly every break a walk on the high wire. I wondered why somebody who struggled so much and never seemed to get any more comfortable would keep on doing it.

Now, before I can tell you the rest of this story, I have to tell you a different one.

We have mentioned before how it used to be that the jock on the air was also the transmitter operator, required to pass a test and get a license from the FCC. The operator had to take regular readings of transmitter power to make sure the station was operating legally, and adjust power if it was not. If the station dropped off the air for some reason, it was that person’s responsibility to get it back on, and to document everything in the station’s transmitter log. It was made clear to every jock from Day One that all of this was Very Serious Business, because the FCC was always watching, like God. In addition, the transmitter operator/DJ bore the ultimate reponsibility for whatever got on the air. So we had our own homemade, bitch-free edit of “Rich Girl,” and why Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” bore a warning label regarding the single “shit” in the lyrics. Nobody wanted to be the person who brought down the hammer of federal justice.

One afternoon we heard through the grapevine that an FCC inspector had been in nearby Dubuque that morning. Word spread through the station like wildfire, and we immediately went on high alert, obsessively monitoring our transmitter to make damn sure we were legal. We got all the old logs in order, in case the inspector wanted to see them, and we probably picked up the place a little bit too, all in anticipation of the fateful visit.

As it happened, Kristin was on the air that afternoon, and the news that the FCC might be listening did absolutely nothing for her barely detectible confidence. On one of her first breaks, she cued up a Wishbone Ash record and promptly introduced it as Wishbone Ass. After it dawned on her that she had said “ass” on the air while possibly being monitored by the FCC, she was distraught. She was sure that she was about to get her license revoked, and the station’s, too. Some of us took more pleasure than we should have in her obvious discomfiture, but at the same time, we worried that she might be right.

As you might guess, however, the Great Wishbone Ass Incident didn’t cost anybody their license. The FCC didn’t show up that day, or on any other day as far as I can remember.

Years later, it seems to me that our concern about the FCC was not unlike a child’s concern about the monster under the bed: a mysterious presence, amorphous in the dark, ready to bite our heads off at the slightest provocation. We could feel it, even though we couldn’t see it. Surely, even back in the day, FCC field officers had better things to do than monitor 420-watt college radio stations. Nevertheless, we acted as though the monster was really there, because it seemed safer than to risk being eaten.

(Rebooted from a 2012 post.)

Veteran of the Talk-Up Wars

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A colleague of mine, who spent most of his long on-air career in album rock and adult alternative radio, said to me one day, “Before I started working here, I had never talked over the introduction of a song.”

Really? I kinda felt sorry for him.

I do not know if anyone has ever done a history of the DJ talkover, also known as a talk-up. Announcers talked over music during big-band broadcasts in the 30s and 40s, but it’s wasn’t what we’d recognize as the modern style. If Alan Freed wasn’t the first with that, whoever was first must have pioneered it at around the same time, when hot-rockin’ radio first became a thing, integrating jock-talk into the flow to keep the vibe going. I doubt that the announcers on my parents’ radio stations did it much, however. I probably heard it for the first time when I started listening to WLS 50 years ago. It couldn’t have been long before I learned that a well-executed talkover is really cool. By sometime in 1971, 11-year-old me could do it, and did.

The Holy Grail of the talkover is “hitting the post”—going all the way to the vocal, wrapping up with the call letters or the punchline of your bit just as the singer starts. Believe me when I tell you that it’s one hell of a rush—so much so that some jocks do talk-ups just to amuse themselves when they aren’t even on the air. (I do it in the car. Many years ago, I was in a group of jocks drinking beer and playing “talk-up wars” with the songs coming on the stereo, trying to outdo one another. )

But consultants and program directors will tell you not to try to hit the post all the time. They give you lots of reasons for this, chief among them that “it makes you sound too much like a DJ.” Styles change, best practices change, listener expectations change, and the boss jock style of bygone days no longer represents the ideal. Some consultants and PDs will tell you never to do it—but you still can. Lots of introductions contain posts other than the start of the vocal—places where a new instrument comes in, where a singer whistles or shouts or grunts, something like that—and hitting those posts is just much fun. And if you manage to time out whatever you’re saying to hit all of the posts in an introduction on the way to the vocal—two or three of them, maybe—the rush is practically orgasmic. In radio nerd terms, it’s like hitting a home run.

I do not know if young jocks have an affinity for the talkover. I do not know if they get a rush from doing it, like those of us who were raised by the Top 40 jocks of the 60s and 70s, masters of the art. So I cannot say for certain that the art of the talkover is dying. I can say, however, that it’s getting more difficult.

A well-executed talkover requires an economy of language. It was (and on old airchecks, still is) amazing how much personality old-school jocks could project into so little time. But today, introductions are shorter than ever. Eight or nine seconds is common now. It’s challenging to do something worthwhile in so little time, but possible. The event horizon, for me, is six seconds. Sometimes I can’t even get my call letters, the title, and the artist in six seconds. The record might as well have no intro at all.

(The rationale for shorter intros is the same one that’s killed the mid-song instrumental solo—the thinking goes that people want to hear Ed Sheeran, so why A) waste time waiting for Ed to start and/or B) take time away from Ed to let some other dude play? Anything to avoid the dreaded Spotify skip.)

A radio consultant once told me that no listener ever says, “I like the way that guy talks up a record,” and he was right, yet even he acknowledged how much fun it is. But I once had a colleague say to me, “I wish I could talk up records the way you do.” As old-school DJ compliments go, that’s a pretty good one.

Any questions? I’ll be happy to elaborate, and so will other old radio types amongst the readership.