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.
(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.
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 Play, TuneIn 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.
Last week, three of my radio colleagues got fired, all jocks, all on the stations I work for. Their “positions were eliminated,” to use one piece of jargon favored across the industry. Call it “downsizing” or “reductions in force,” but people end up without paychecks and with uncertain futures on the cusp of the holiday season. This kind of thing frequently happens in November as ownership groups contemplate year-end financial goals and plan for the new year. In my 13-plus years with my current company, this is the third one of these I can remember. (I wrote about one of them, which happened seven years ago today, here.)
I’m just a dumb-ass part-time disc jockey. I’m not saying anything I wouldn’t say to my bosses when I tell you I don’t like what happened. They don’t either. And I’m sad for my friends. But I’m also concerned about what it means for my own role as a dumb-ass part-time disc jockey. Radio companies need fewer of us these days. For those of us who still have such jobs, there are going to be fewer hours for us to fill. I expect that the company will find a way to put my talent and abilities to good use in the altered landscape ahead, but we’re gonna have to sail closer before I can see the shape of it.
Beyond being sad for my friends, I have been trying to figure out what else I’m feeling. Maybe it’s survivor guilt. This is something radio people don’t talk about out loud, why them and not me?, as if verbalizing the idea might put a target on your back for next time (and there is always a next time). But it’s not right to feel that way. Guys like me often become more valuable after this happens. We know how to do a lot of stuff, and we can fill in the gaps. I’ve been doing that this week and will continue to do it for a while.
Maybe it’s PTSD—flashbacks to the times I’ve been fired, glimpses of the emptiness and dread that comes with it. I’ve written about that before. Even when you know it’s coming (and sometimes you do), getting fired is a terrible jolt, and that’s how I experienced it, an electric shock, like grabbing onto a live wire. Once the shock subsides, you have to decide what’s next. That process is easier if you have a working spouse or money in the bank. But you still have to make the calculation about how long you can go without a job, whether you can get one in your town, or whether you’ll have to move.
And after it happens a couple of times, another question elbows its way into consideration. It’s not unique to radio; anyone working in an industry they love in spite of themselves might ask it: should I quit this damn business and go do something that isn’t going to break my heart?
These questions, including the latter, are the ones my former colleagues are facing right now.
Another Ending: Ann and I are Wisconsin Badgers football season-ticket holders. Since 2004, we’ve sat in Section Z2, in the south end zone at Camp Randall Stadium, and gamedays are one of the things we love the best. We’ve seen Rose Bowl teams and Russell Wilson, and some of the greatest moments in the 120-plus years of football at the UW.
This Saturday, however, we will sit in Z2 for the last time.
The UW has announced that in response to demand, they’re building a new premium seating section in our end of the stadium, which will be complete in time for the 2020 season. The athletic department has promised us that we will be able to choose new seats, although we are not at the top of the new-seat priority list. Ann and I have agreed that we’ll see what we can get, but also that if they are not exactly to our liking, we’re going to give up our tickets after 16 seasons.
When the project was first announced at the stadium, with a splashy promo on the scoreboard, it was soundly booed by the people in our end, because none of us are privileged enough to sit there, despite having paid the ever-increasing fare year after year (face value on our tickets for the recent game with Iowa was $115 each, more than double what it was in 2004). Even though people like us make up the majority of game-day patrons, we’re not the people driving this bus.
Not here, and not anywhere else in America, actually.
People don’t make song requests to radio stations like they used to. Maybe they’ve finally internalized the idea that whatever they want to hear is a couple of clicks away on the Internet, or the idea that radio stations just don’t play requests anymore.
The biggest rationale for not playing requests is that to acquire and maintain your carefully defined slice of the demographic pie requires a laser-focused format, not just in terms of the songs you play, but when you play them, how often, and even what you play next to them. Requests disrupt this focus. Even a tiny bit of dial-punching, caused by the most innocuous thing you can imagine, can cost you in the ratings.
A savvy, veteran jock can mitigate the disruptions to a certain degree. When I did the all-request show on the classic rock station, it was as an ex-program director who knew how the classic-rock canon broke down in terms of rotation categories. I knew which songs could stand more frequent airplay and which could not, as well as which off-the-wall suggestions were appropriate for me to play and which were not. At my stations today, I know some of the criteria that are used to rotate and schedule songs but not all of them. There’s a lot more that’s considered than just “This hasn’t been on since yesterday so it’s OK to play right now.”
But even before sophisticated data and tight demographics, there was the old-school excuse: “Why should we turn our station and its thousands of listeners over to the personal preferences of just one caller?” After all, there’s research that shows us which songs are liked by those thousands in the aggregate, and they’re a lot safer to play. That objection has a lot to recommend it, actually. Most veteran jocks have dealt with that one listener who calls up every damn day wanting to hear the same thing. And should you break down and play it, or should it accidentally come up in the rotation right after they call, they’ll keep calling for it until time shall be no more.
Here at this website, however, I do take requests. I have done a few posts over the years simply because people asked me to (and I’m always willing to do more, so ask.) What I’m about to solicit isn’t exactly the same thing, but it’s close.
I currently have three podcast episodes in the can. They’ll all run eventually, but I’d like you to decide which one should go first.
—“J. T. and the Boomers” is about the persistence of baby-boomer music and why everyone’s taste in music—not just boomers’ taste—never seems to change.
—“Random Radio Tales” is about close encounters with fame and the famous, and a couple of other stories.
—“The Fair and the Farm” is one of those non-music, non-radio things, about an incident from my life as a farm kid, and about the place where part of it happened.
Vote below, and the one that gets the most votes will go live on Friday, November 15.
What happened at Deadspin this week felt kind of familiar to me, and to other radio people, I’ll bet.
The short version if you haven’t been following: the site got new owners earlier this year—rich dopes who have experience in online publishing but little actual success at it—and they issued a “stick to sports” edict, although Deadspin was years evolved beyond its creation as an independent sports website into a politics and culture magazine with a wide ambit and a unique point of view. It was home to legitimately great writers, including Drew Magary, David Roth, and Albert Burneko, tenacious journalists including Diana Moskovitz and Laura Wagner, and a crew of brilliant bloggers. The site’s most recent editor, Megan Greenwell, quit in August (and set fire to her bosses on her way out the door); after this week’s latest “stick to sports” edict, deputy editor Barry Petchesky pinned Deadspin’s best non-sports posts on the front page and got fired for it. Within 48 hours, most of the other writers had hit the door, and Deadspin, a site I have visited several times a day for over a decade, was dead.
Any radio person who has been through a station sale probably can feel pains of sympathy for what the Deadspinners have been going through.
Understand first of all that I get it, and my radio colleagues who have been through it get it: when you own the company, you can do whatever you want with it. But it happens time and again, as it happened at G/O Media (owners of Deadspin and other sites including Jezebel, the Root, and the sadly shuttered Splinter, the news site the private-equity dopes terminated last month), and at radio stations from here to West Overshoe: new owners come in with a set of prejudices and the intent to act on them. They look at what the place is doing, and they say, “This can’t be working,” which often translates to, “I don’t like this, which means it’s wrong.” Or they say—and this is closer to what happened at Deadspin—“I’m going to do this thing even if it makes no sense to you, because I’m playing a game of nine-dimensional chess you can’t understand.”
It doesn’t have to be new owners. It can be new bosses brought in by old owners. I know of a radio station where a new boss announced that he would curtail the amount of live sports the station was doing, because nobody was listening and they couldn’t sell it. This was before he’d bothered to look at the revenue figures, which proved that they could sell it, which in a non-measured market is all that matters. I know of another station with a specialty show that made money like there was a printer in the basement, but a new manager wanted to kill it because he couldn’t understand its appeal. Years ago, I got fired for the simple reason that a new boss wanted his people. That the new people were not as talented never entered his mind.
Deadspin’s owners do not understand that recaps of the World Series or somesuch, no matter how engagingly written, were not what kept people coming back to the site. And that’s what makes this so absolutely maddening, and what makes it so maddening to we radio types when new owners or managers take over and start messing with a proven product. The evidence for what works is right in front of you—why are you unable to see it?
Megan Greenwell wrote: “A metastasizing swath of media is controlled by private-equity vultures and capricious billionaires and other people who genuinely believe that they are rich because they are smart and that they are smart because they are rich, and that anyone less rich is by definition less smart. They know what they know, and they don’t need to know anything else.” [Italics mine.] But you don’t have to be rich, necessarily, to think this way. It’s enough to believe you’re smart because you have been told that you’re smart—even if it’s only yourself who has done the telling—and that anyone who isn’t you is less smart. And so you will, with eyes wide open, make decisions based on your own perceived smartness and discount the real-world evidence that is, and let me repeat this, right in front of you.
TL, DR: so long, Deadspinners. You were awesome. A lot of us out here feel your pain, wish you well, and look forward to following you wherever you land.