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.

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.