Brand-Name Madison

A while back, when I asked what you’d like to read about on here, our good brother HERC asked for some stories about The Lake, the classic-rock station I worked for from 2006 to 2008. I’ve told a few over the years. Here are some more.

—The picture with this post is me, younger and thinner and on remote with the station vehicle, a 1968 VW bus. Its extra-long, on-the-floor gearshift and tricky clutch meant I needed a driving lesson before I could take it out. It wouldn’t get much above 40 on the highway, but everybody who passed you honked and waved.

—I started in mid-June 2006, and I had done maybe two shows before I was asked to host a private wine-and-cigars party for four listeners aboard a sponsor’s boat. If they were disappointed that their host was not one of the brand-name Madison jocks they heard every day but the extremely new weekend guy, they never betrayed it.

—I used only my first name, just Jim, like Cher, or Madonna. No reason; as I recall, it was a spontaneous decision just before I did my first break on the air. When I went to work for another station in the building with another Jim on it, I had to take my last name back, although I still use just Jim on some breaks now and then.

—We did not regularly play new music, but when certain core artists of the classic-rock format released new records, we mixed them in: Aerosmith, Rush, and Bob Seger are three I can remember. For a while, we played one side of a classic album every night at 11:00, and one weekend we played a side at the top of every hour. They had been digitized for use with the station’s automation, but were sourced from vinyl with clicks, pops, and noise intact, some straight from the jocks’ personal collections. I have never told my wife this, but I took in her copy of Billy Joel’s The Stranger only to have it locked into somebody’s office and then packed off to storage or some damn place, and I haven’t seen it since.

—For a while, the station did a noontime feature called Lunch With Little. Jonathan Little was Madison’s most recognizable radio voice from the 60s to the 90s, a Wisconsin Broadcasters Association Hall of Famer, somebody who saw and did everything a radio guy could see and do, and he told stories about it on the show. The first time I was on before him, I ended my last break by saying, “As a kid who grew up listening to Madison radio, I have been waiting all my life to say this: Jonathan Little is next.”

—In 2007, the station hosted a stage at Taste of Madison, the annual Labor Day weekend food festival held on the Capitol Square. At one point, several of the Lake jocks, weekday people and weekenders, were on stage at the same time, firing up the crowd. To be a part of that group was a thrill.

Backstage that day, I talked with Larry Hoppen from Orleans, Robbie Dupree, and others. Joe Lynn Turner from Rainbow told a group of us about being on tour with Ted Nugent, and how one night he spiked the notorious teetotaler’s drink, causing the Motor City Madman to create a scandalous scene in a hotel swimming pool.

—As I understood it, the Lake’s goal was not to win a particular demographic, but to shave enough share points off a crosstown classic-rock competitor to allow another rock station in our building to win the demographic. The Lake had to do this without shaving share points from other stations in our building at the same time. It could not have been an easy needle to thread, but it lasted five years before the company decided to pull the plug, which is about four years longer than a lot of companies might have given it. (By the time that happened—2008—I was working for another station in the building, and two years after that, I started on a second one.)

In January 2019 I wrote, “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.”

We take requests here. If there’s something you’d like me to do—answer a question, write about a song or artist, rank the cuts on an album, dig into a date for the One Day in Your Life treatment, or something else entirely—let me know. 

Pressure Night

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Twenty-five years ago, something like 96 percent of American homes had radios, but only about two-thirds of homes have them today. And today, as the COVID-19 crisis continues, stations are plugging their streaming capability and their apps, but it will be hard to make up for the drop in the number of drive-time commuters, or people in offices, pulling down megahertz or kilohertz from the sky.

Since the crisis began, some radio stations have actually gained audience shares, however: listeners are turning to all-news stations and public radio in greater numbers than before. If listening to those stations becomes a habit, listeners may stick with them if and when the crisis eases. But if habits can form in a positive direction for radio, they can also form in a negative direction. Some stations may never get back the listeners who have left them for Spotify or Pandora or podcasts or whatever they want from a smart speaker.

If and when the COVID-19 crisis ends, radio’s competitive landscape will be a lot different. Profit margins will be even thinner than they were before. Nobody will blame advertisers for an unwillingness to pay pre-plague prices for post-plague audience numbers when those numbers are lower. That new economic reality, combined with massive personnel adjustments at the major chains and at smaller groups like the one I have been furloughed from, make it clear that the industry to which some of us hope to return will be vastly different from the one we left.

Thinking about all this makes me nostalgic for the way it used to be, so it’s a good time for another podcast episode, with more stories from my radio career. You’ll learn the meaning of Pressure Night, and you’ll find out what it’s like to introduce famous rock stars from the stage. I’ll tell you about the most embarrassing money I ever made. You’ll hear about the day I nearly killed a co-worker by accident, and the night I got overserved while I was on the air.

It’s below, and it can also be found at the usual other locations:  Google PlayTuneIn, Stitcher, and Apple Podcasts. To listen to other episodes, go here. And stop back tomorrow for another rebooted One Day in Your Life post.


Back When

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None of the retrospectives and tributes I’ve read since Kenny Rogers passed away has mentioned one of my favorite credits of his, so it’s up to me.

During the long fadeout of the First Edition, toward the end of their syndicated TV show in 1973 and while Rogers was trying to build his own record label and keep the band afloat, he took on some freelance production work. One assignment was to work with a band from New York State called Gunhill Road. They had sold a few copies of their debut album, and their new label, Kama Sutra, felt that a big-name producer might make a difference with the second one. So Rogers came on board. But in early 1973, the label brought in a different production team, Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise, to rerecord some of the songs. The original album was yanked and replaced, and one of the revised Kerner/Wise songs was released as a single: “Back When My Hair Was Short.”

The original, Rogers-produced “Back When My Hair Was Short” was pitched to the underground FM-radio crowd, heavy with drug references and scattershot criticism of the hypocrisy of American life. The revised “Back When My Hair Was Short” was transformed from early-70s topical to early-60s nostalgic. Instead of reading Screw magazine and dealing dope, the protagonist steals hubcaps and has an abiding faith in love. The revised “Back When My Hair Was Short” has a more tightly focused lyric and a sense of humor missing from the original, as well as an AM-radio gloss that the original does not have. (You can compare the two versions of the lyric here.)

The record’s chart action was diffuse; it became a big hit in some places as early as March and as late as July 1973, leading to a peak of #40 on the Hot 100 (#25 in Cash Box) at the end of June. After that, Gunhill Road never got a sniff of the charts again and split up, although they reformed in 2014 for a new album. Kerner and Wise would produce the band Stories as members of the Kama Sutra production staff. After they moved with label honcho Neil Bogart to Casablanca, they produced the first two KISS albums. Rogers launched his legendary solo career in 1976. And “Back When My Hair Was Short” endures as the sort of obscure record that’s beloved by nerds such as we.

For the second part of this post, click below.


Serious Purpose

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Several eternities ago, back on March 12, while I was on what was supposed to be a three-week trip to Minnesota, I tweeted the following: “As long as I’m not quarantined, my station’s building is open, and ICE/CBP isn’t outside my door with guns to keep me inside, I’m going to work.” But after the trip ended early, on Sunday the 15th, and once I got back home, the time came to decide whether to actually do it. And I wavered a bit. The Mrs. works at home; she’d been isolated for a week, and if I could keep from catching anything I hadn’t picked up already, maybe it was best for me to stay isolated too.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t. Ann and I talked it over, and radio people should do radio, especially in a time such as this. So I plunged back into the usual routine early last week, filling in on a couple of night shifts and a couple of middays. And this week, in keeping with the role I’ve had for these many years, I’ll be plugged in wherever they need me to be.

Like other radio stations, mine has taken whatever steps it can to protect the people who have to work. The studios are supplied with cleaning products, and we’re all keeping our distance from one another. I think we all know that it’s not going to be foolproof. People are going to get sick eventually. But we aren’t going through our days worrying about that.

(One might argue that’s what the nights are for.)

Old radio guys like me came up in the business when it was in the DNA of radio stations to operate in the public interest, convenience, and necessity. When news broke or a crisis happened, we snapped into service mode automatically, if only by following the cues of the veterans around us. For younger broadcasters, there’s maybe a learning curve. If you view yourself mainly as an entertainer, it’s another thing entirely to become a conduit through which life-and-death information has to flow. A lot of radio stations don’t have news departments anymore, so it’s up to jocks to be the journalists. And who are the grizzled old veterans to serve as role models for them?

I guess it’s gonna have to be me.

You can take a cue from covering severe weather. When you talk about a tornado, blizzard, or hurricane, people are gonna be hanging on your every word, so you have to be credible. You have to get stuff right. You have to rely on good sources. Don’t hype, but don’t downplay the seriousness either. But unlike severe weather, which lasts a few hours in most cases, or a few days in the case of a blizzard or a hurricane, the crisis we’re in right now is going to last far longer. How are we to maintain that sense of purpose, that credibility, that seriousness, for months on end?

You’ll need to find the right tone, and to do that, don’t forget who you were before this all started. In my case, I always try to present information I think my audience will find entertaining and/or informative, although last week I leaned more toward informative. However, last week, I also couldn’t resist making a joke about how after Prince Albert of Monaco was diagnosed with the virus, he’d be spending his two-week isolation in a can. But when it’s time to talk about the impact or potential impact of the virus on our listeners, in our home towns, whatever we say needs to be delivered with an underlying sense of serious purpose.

A sense of serious purpose will have to be our lodestar as the crisis deepens, and as it starts to affect each of us personally. Somebody pointed out on Twitter on Friday night that jokes about the virus and about quarantine are going to be a lot less funny once people we know get sick or start dying. Right now, I don’t know how that’s going to affect me as a radio personality—how it’s going to change what’s appropriate to me to do on the air—but I suspect that by this time next week, I will.

Consultant Fred Jacobs collected some stories about life on the air in the early days of the coronavirus crisis. Read ’em here.

Also: I’m not going to write about Kenny Rogers, because other people have done it better, including Professor O’Kelly, and Tom Erlewine, and Kyle Coroneos, and Alfred Soto. Read them. 

The Cream of the Rest

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(Pictured: Cream, 1967.)

My recent series of posts on “Stairway to Heaven,” “Free Bird,” and “Layla,” started me thinking: those songs are widely considered the foundation stones of classic rock as a radio format, and album-oriented rock radio before it. But what’s #4?

As it happens, we already have a list of semifinalists available at this website. Last year, I wrote about a couple of lists I found in the archives from the now-defunct Radio and Records that were compiled in 1978 and 1979. The first was the Top 43 album cuts of all time, which could include 60s music; the second was the top tracks of the 70s.

On the 1978 list, here’s the rest of the Top 10: “Roundabout,” “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Nights in White Satin,” “A Day in the Life,” “Light My Fire,” and “Hey Jude.” From 1979, the rest of the Top 10 were “Born to Run,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Roundabout,” “Money,” “Hotel California,” “Rhiannon,” and “Aqualung.” So consensus of those lists would make “Roundabout” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” into prime contenders.

When I started thinking about which song could be #4, “Roundabout” was the first song that came to mind, although I don’t think it’s as popular now as it used to be. Dan Kelley of the Michigan Association of Broadcasters, a guy with many years in and around classic-rock radio (including his own online station) suggested “Smoke on the Water,” although he also observed that we don’t hear it as much as we used to. “I guess when classic-rock stations added Def Leppard and Guns ‘n’ Roses, something had to go.” Sean Ross of Edison Research concurs. Neither “Smoke on the Water” nor “Roundabout” gets much airplay anymore because of their age, and their length. You might say the same about “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

Randy Raley, a longtime album-rock jock who also has an online classic-rock station, says that based on research he’s done and/or seen, the most-played songs on classic-rock radio right now are “Dream On,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” All of those have grown in stature since the end of the 70s, since none of them were on either of the Radio and Records lists—which seems weird until you consider the fate of “Roundabout” and “Smoke on the Water,” and you get your brain around the idea that even though these lists seem very static, they’re fluid too. So you’d have to consider those three songs as well.

(I don’t have a problem excluding music from the 80s or later from this discussion, although your mileage may vary. Sean mentioned “Don’t Stop Believing,” “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” saying, “Feels like something new should have entered the canon but doesn’t feel exactly like a match.”)

I asked people on Facebook to weigh in and got a lot of suggestions, some of which were better than others. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” got some votes, as did “Money,” “More Than a Feeling,” and “Sweet Home Alabama.” Two of the strongest contenders for #4 that I hadn’t thought of before were “Come Sail Away” and “White Room.” I think we forget how ubiquitous “White Room” used to be, even though it didn’t make either Radio and Records list. That song got daily airplay, at least on the classic-rock stations I heard most often.

Whatever #4 is, it would need the kind of epic, larger-than-life quality that the big three have. That’s an elusive thing to define, and I’m not sure any one of us would see it the same way. To me, it represents an obvious striving for a Big Statement, but not so obvious that it seems contrived or overblown. A lot of records on this list were and are hugely popular but don’t seem like Big Statements. “Overblown” takes “Bohemian Rhapsody” off the table—great as it is, it’s hilariously over the top at the same time. Song #4 needs the proven ability to stand the test of time without feeling dated. This is where “Smoke on the Water,” “Roundabout,” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” fall off the table—and “Light My Fire,” “Hey Jude,” and “A Day in the Life” too.

The way I see it, the legitimate contenders for #4 are (in no particular order) “Money,” “Dream On,” “Born to Run,” and “Hotel California.” And in the end, I settled on the latter. Dan thought of it, Sean concurred, and several Facebookers voted for it. “Hotel California” is the right combination of Big Statement, timelessness, and enduring popularity, and it’s still getting a lot of airplay today.

Let a thousand arguments bloom.

Random Radio Tales

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In every profession, people sit around and tell stories. Car salesmen have stories unique to them. Teachers have theirs. Computer programmers have theirs. Your field, whatever it is, has its stories. And I have mine.

And I suppose that every profession thinks its stories are more colorful than anyone else’s. Radio stories do have certain unique characteristics, though. The job involves more close encounters with celebrities than most other professions. Radio often attracts oddball characters whose personalities range from bent to twisted. Some of my friends and colleagues have partied with rock superstars, seen fellow jocks engage in hilarious or embarrassing behavior (or engaged in it themselves), and have in general had the kind of experiences that you tell about for years after they happen.

My best stories are pretty milquetoast compared to those some of my friends can tell. I did, however, meet some famous people, work with some weirdos, and see some shit. Some of my stories are in the latest episode of my podcast.

—That time a television legend came to my town
—The most surreal job interview I ever had
—The tale of an especially terrible boss
—Brief encounters with curious listeners

You can listen to the episode right here:



Episodes are also available at Google PlayTuneIn and Stitcher, and can also be found at Apple Podcasts, if you swing that way. I appreciate your comments on this episode and others. If you listen on a platform where you can give the episode (or my whole podcast) a like or a positive rating, I hope you will.