Category Archives: Radio Tales

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.

Hi Always, Ray Sawyer

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(Pictured: Ray Sawyer, in profile, and Dennis Locorriere of Dr. Hook.)

The thing I found most surprising about the death of Ray Sawyer, the guy who wore the eye-patch in Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, is not so much that he died, but that he was 81 years old. He was no baby-boomer; while “Cover of the Rolling Stone” was riding the charts in 1973, he turned 37 years old. Chronologically, he was more a member of my parents’ generation than of mine.

As it happens, I met Ray Sawyer once.

Dr. Hook formed in the late 60s and for several years specialized in amiable stoner rock. They performed some Shel Silverstein songs in the 1971 Dustin Hoffman movie Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me, and scored a Top-10 hit with Silverstein’s “Sylvia’s Mother” in 1972. The 1973 album Sloppy Seconds consisted entirely of Silverstein songs, not just “Cover of the Rolling Stone” but such PG-rated fare as “Freakin’ at the Freakers’ Ball,” “Get My Rocks Off,” and “Lookin’ for Pussy.” In 1975, however, they dropped the Medicine Show from their name. As Dr. Hook, they became a reliable pop act. Between 1976 and 1979, “Only Sixteen,” “Sharing the Night Together,” and “When You’re in Love With a Beautiful Woman” all hit the Top 10, and “A Little Bit More” reached #11. Released late in 1979, the album Sometimes You Win produced two more Top-10 hits, “Better Love Next Time” and “Sexy Eyes.”

(In terms of chart performance, “Sexy Eyes” ended up their biggest Hot 100 hit, equaling “Sylvia’s Mother” at #5 but charting for 21 weeks compared to 15 for “Sylvia.” Nevertheless, I bet you don’t remember it at all.)

And so it came to pass that in the summer of 1980, Dr. Hook’s itinerary bought them to the Stephenson County Fair in Freeport, Illinois, and I got to interview Sawyer and lead singer Dennis Locorriere.

I was the night jock at WXXQ in Freeport. One afternoon, I went with a guy from our AM sister station to a hotel room in Freeport (which may in fact have been a motel room in Freeport), and there they were: Sawyer with his eye-patch and cowboy hat, and Locorriere looking no different than other thirtyish dudes one might pass on the street. They were, as best I can remember, very gracious, greeting us with big smiles and handshakes, and quite gregarious.

At the age of 20, I hadn’t met anyone remotely famous. I didn’t want anybody to know that, of course, and furthermore, I wanted to come off as the hip rock jock I saw when I looked in the mirror. But these guys were real rock stars, and I was scared shitless.

I remember only two things about the interview. First was a line that Sawyer probably repeated in every interview: “I lost my eye in a car accident. I went back to look for it but I couldn’t find it.” The other thing is asking them how they would describe a typical Dr. Hook song. What they said, I don’t remember—but I do remember that in my flustered-ness, I asked the question twice.

I don’t remember how we used the interview. My station was an album-rocker, although we may have added “Cover of the Rolling Stone” for the duration, and we probably played at least some of the interview to help plug the concert. The AM station played soft rock, mostly, and the interview probably got more prominent play over there.

I didn’t go to the Dr. Hook show at the county fair, because I was on the air that night. But when I hear a Dr. Hook song today, I sometimes think of that interview. Were I to go digging through my boxes of tapes, I could probably find a copy of it—but I’d be afraid to listen to it.

Before we left that day, we asked Sawyer and Locorriere to autograph copies of Sometimes You Win for giveaways. We were embarrassed to have only ballpoint pens for them to sign with, which don’t write well on covers. One of the better-looking copies ended up in my collection; it’s pictured here. Although you can’t see it, Sawyer signed, in a nice throwback to his stoner-rock days, “Hi Always, Ray Sawyer.”

Coming tomorrow: another tribute post.

Lost in Love

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It’s what you get when you fall in love with a girl who turns out to be bad for you.

She will steal your time and batter your emotions. You know she’s going to do it, because it’s how she is with you. But you want her anyway—against every bit of common sense and good judgment, despite of all she’s done to you and all she’s going to do—you want her.

Sometimes you see yourself clearly, and the fix you’re in. You realize that you have the option—and the need—to get away from her, as fast and as far as you can. And maybe you even manage to make the break a time or two. But then she looks at you just so, or she does that thing that makes you crazy, or she’s just there to scratch the itch you have at the moment it really needs scratching. And you’re lost, in love all over again.

Forty years ago today, I did my first real radio show, at the end of my first semester in college at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, a three-hour morning-show fill-in on the campus station during final exam week.

I say “real” because I’d done some less-than-real stuff before that. I’d imagined myself as a DJ from the time I was 11 years old, and I frequently pretended to be one. As a result, long before I sat down in an actual working broadcast studio, I could talk up a song introduction and ad lib the weather. In 1976, I had purchased 15 minutes of airtime on our hometown station in a fundraising auction for some club at our high school. I used my time to play some songs I liked and to crack wise. But it wasn’t until December 14, 1978, that I got to do real radio in real time in a real studio over a real transmitter. The next day, I did a six-hour show that was the single most exhilarating experience of my life. Nothing else, in radio or in life itself, has ever come close. My long-awaited radio career had begun.

I got my first paying radio job less than three months after that, and I worked part-time all through school. My full-time radio career began in 1982 and ended on the first working day of 1994. I got a couple of other full-time jobs after that, one at the end of 1994 and one in 2013, but neither one of them was meant to be, so I gave them back. But for 25 years now, I have been mainly a part-time radio guy. I have been a part-timer more than twice as long as I was a full-timer. And for a eight-year stretch of those 40 years, from 1998 to 2006, I didn’t do a DJ show at all—just a few sports broadcasts and a tiny bit of voiceover work.

So it may be 40 years since my first show, but I don’t think I can call it 40 years in radio. Forty years around radio, maybe.

I never really had a career plan. I wanted to climb the market ladder, but I had no idea how best to do it. Although I learned a lot from lots of people, I never really had a mentor in the traditional sense. I had the attention span of a goldfish and the work ethic of a hobo. (Still do.) So I blundered along.

And after many years of blundering, I come to this anniversary.

I am under no illusions that my career has been anything like a success. I look at certain friends and colleagues in the industry and see the sort of careers I wish I had today, and I regret that I do not.

I am under no illusions that this is anybody’s fault but mine, however. It’s what you get when you fall in love with a girl who turns out to be bad for you.

Forty years on, I still love radio. She’s the only thing in my life that gets me jacked up. Radio work seems meaningful in a way that all the other work in my life does not.

But even now, when I keep her at arm’s length, she is still capable of breaking my heart. And if I keep hanging around her, she’s almost certainly going to do it again.

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