Songs and Stories

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My radio station went all-70s on Saturdays in 1989. The details changed over the years (start time, end time, American Top 40 shows came and went), but it remained essentially an all-day thing, until the first Saturday of 2022, when management dropped the all-day 70s program and put it on from seven til midnight only.

That first day, with Ed Sheeran and Dua Lipa playing all day instead of Elton John and Donna Summer, caused the station’s Facebook page and studio e-mail box to melt down. I wasn’t especially surprised by the volume of the response, only at the harshness of a lot of it. This went on for six or eight weeks before things calmed down. Now those “what happened to 70s music” e-mails have become infrequent, whenever the occasional coma victim wakes up.

Every now and then a message or a phone call would come in from somebody who seemed sincerely interested in the reasoning behind the decision, so I would try to explain. It comes down to the passage of time, I said. Our radio station has always been targeted at people aged 25 to 49. In 1989, that meant people born between 1940 and 1964, people whose formative music years were essentially from the mid 1950s to the late 80s. Seventies music falls right in the middle of that. In 2022, people in the target audience are born between 1973 and 1997. Their formative music years run from the late 80s to, well, right now. I said to one woman, “70s music means as much to our target audience today as 40s music did to us when we were 30.”

“Oh,” she responded. “I get it now.”

The decision to put the 70s show on from seven til midnight was coupled with another one: to make me the sole host and producer of the show. I have probably gotten too old and tired and jaded to fully appreciate what management did: they handed me five hours of airtime and said, “Play 70s music, and do it any way you want.”

Some of you are thinking, “Wow, I’d love that.” But consider this: free-form radio is harder than anybody imagines. Anybody reading this could probably program a decent five-hour 70s music show—one time. Doing it a second and third and fourth and nineteenth time, when you have to change it up again and again, is far more difficult, especially if you don’t want to turn it into a wank-fest for your own amusement. I have no desire to work that hard. So I’m still letting the music software schedule most of the show, although the lineup always has to be edited by hand, because the human touch can’t be removed from radio programming no matter how hard the industry tries to make it so.

I went through the library and recategorized a lot of songs. We were regularly playing only about half of the 70s songs in the library, with a vast number of classics collecting dust for some reason. I’m still trying to get the category rotations tweaked to my satisfaction. I have replaced some edited songs with better full-length versions, and I have also added a few songs that seemed like howling omissions. (No “Mr. Blue Sky”? Seriously?) And I will confess to having put in a couple of songs just because I want to hear how they sound on the show. (Coming up one night soon: the Raspberries’ “Overnight Sensation.”)

This doesn’t mean that the show as it was built and nurtured through the 90s, 00s, and 10s was wrong or bad. My approach is a difference in philosophy. It’s a different kind of specialty show now, more concentrated, and not all-day wallpaper. The audience that has followed the show to Saturday nights likely has a greater interest in stories about the artists and songs, and in hearing a greater variety of music. I’m giving them both.

I do the show live most of the time, although I could easily take advantage of the technology and record it in advance. I do it live because I feel like it’s important to actually be there for the listeners (and to play requests, because how better to boost listener loyalty?), and because The Mrs. and I never go anywhere on Saturday nights anyway. And because it’s fun. And for one other related reason, which will require a future post to discuss.

Plugged In

When your cat goes out but doesn’t come back in, or a stray dog comes begging at your back door, do you call your local radio station and ask them to announce it? Almost certainly not. But there was a time when people commonly did so, and radio stations were happy to read lost-pet announcements—and not just in small towns, either. Take a look at the survey from KFRC in San Francisco dated August 21, 1972. (The front and back covers are pictured here. Click to embiggen, because they’re beautiful. ) Stations frequently sold advertising on the back page of the weekly music survey, but without an ad, a station promo would do. And on this particular week, KFRC promoted its Petline: “Call day or night. If you have lost your pet or found someone else’s animal friend, we will try to help.”

We did this kind of announcement at KDTH years ago. You’d get a call—sometimes from a child—reporting that their dog was lost. It could be heartbreaking to take the description and the dog’s name, and to promise to read the announcement, all the while knowing that the odds of someone hearing the announcement and finding the animal as a result were slim. We also took pet-found announcements. The likelihood of reuniting pet with owner probably wasn’t any higher than with lost-pet announcements, but they were easier to take.

This sort of public service announcement was once just the tip of an iceberg. At KDTH, we kept a Rolodex full of other announcements for the jocks to read whenever there was time (like when you needed to fill a little time before the network news). Church chicken barbecues, ladies’ club bazaars, boy-scout fundraisers, community craft shows—if you sent us the details, we’d put the announcement into the rotation.

By the middle of the 1980s, the community-calendar/lost-animal PSA fell by the wayside. Maybe the demand for announcements started to exceed the supply of time, or the value of the time became just too great to give away. Maybe it’s that many of the events were of limited interest, and promoting them sounded cheesy and small-time. But it occurs to me now that for making a station sound plugged-in to its community, you could scarcely do better. Any individual announcement didn’t get on much, but in the aggregate, it sounded like the station knew everything that was happening everywhere. And when members of the sponsoring organization—or the owner of the missing cat—heard their announcement, even if they heard it only once, they felt as though the station really cared about them, and by extension, the community.

The first part of this post was rebooted from something that appeared here on August 21, 2009. What’s on the flip is new. 

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Doomsday DJ

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The Kids in the Hall, the Canadian comedy troupe whose TV show ran from 1989 to 1995 and who have reformed for concert tours and a couple of other projects since then, have released a new season of eight episodes, and they’re profiled in a new documentary Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks. It’s all on Amazon Prime. The new episodes are a wonder: it’s a little jarring at first to see the Kids all 30 years older, but it quickly becomes clear that time hasn’t robbed them of a single iota of their unique comedic sensibility.

The single most talked-about sketch in the series is “Doomsday DJ,” in which Dave Foley is on the air following some sort of unspecified apocalypse. It’s a funny premise, but it works as art because Foley gives the acting performance of his life. (You can watch it and read Foley’s comments about it here.)

If you have read this blog for a while, you know that I take the service responsibility of my radio job very seriously. If I see a tornado out the window, I may hide under the desk, but I’m staying in the studio; if I can get out of my driveway in a blizzard or an ice storm, I’m going to the station. During the early days of the pandemic in 2020, I was happy to keep working because I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

But the pandemic was hard for some radio jocks, who had trouble with the new reality. Not a lot of them, but certainly a few. “Service responsibility? I got into this to do entertaining things in creative ways, not to talk about life and death.” But now that wasn’t going to be enough. There was an all-consuming struggle going on, and there was no avoiding it. But how to talk about it? Having to do so made them uncomfortable, or sad. Some had trouble on a more fundamental level: it was tough to function while coping with the unrelenting fear of getting sick.

On the most basic level, radio work is fun. It’s why we do it, and it’s why we love it. But it’s a lot less fun if you feel shadowed by fear and doubt every day.

I understand the self-doubt one might feel at being forced into an unfamiliar role. I even understand a person being afraid of getting sick or seeing loved ones get sick, because we were all afraid of that. But this thing we do isn’t only about ourselves and the gratification of our own egos. There are other people involved—and those people are depending on us. They depend on us for entertainment and companionship, which are the easiest and most fun things we provide. But there are times when they will look to us for information. We shouldn’t shy away from providing it just because it’s deadly serious.

Today, it feels like we’re on the other side of the pandemic. (We aren’t, not really, but what we feel guides us more than what is true.) New roles have been learned, and many old roles are appropriate again. We radio jocks have, for the most part, gone back to doing our jobs as we did them before March 2020. But there are almost certainly other crises yet to come, other matters of life and death, and we’ll be required to respond to them just as we did to the pandemic. It’s not optional. If you bought the ticket, you’re obligated to take the ride.

And as I watch the Doomsday DJ one more time, I know what, at the end of the world, my service responsibility will be.

After the war in Ukraine began, in those tense days when it was easy to imagine a nuclear faceoff between the United States and Russia, The Mrs. and I had a conversation about it. We live in a state capital city. Somewhere out on the Russian steppes, it is likely that there’s a missile with the word “Madison” on it. If we heard it was coming, I asked her, what would you want to do?

She would not want to hide in the basement, go to a shelter, or flee to the countryside, she said. “I would want to sit on the couch with you and the cat and wait to be vaporized.”

It’s what I want, too. But I think she knows, if that distant early warning blows, and I’m on the air somewhere, I won’t be coming home.

Kick Out the Jams, Brothers and Sisters

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(Pictured: a completely spontaneous and not-at-all-orchestrated demonstration of support for Tipper Gore and the PMRC during congressional hearings in 1985.)

Thanks to all for your comments on naughty language in radio songs last Friday.

Mike helpfully linked to Ultimate Classic Rock’s list of songs with cuss words. A lot of the songs were never radio staples, however—in some cases, such as “Star Star,” precisely because the language was so far beyond the pale. Some of the obscenities are barely understandable (the supposed “I wanna fuck you” in the middle of “Do You Feel Like We Do”) or even audible (Paul’s expletive on a missed note in “Hey Jude.”) And many were edited for radio, with edits often more widely heard than the originals: “Who Are You,” “Jet Airliner,” “Kick Out the Jams,” “Hurricane.” As is the case with songs I mentioned in my earlier post, none of these lose very much for being edited. In fact, the radio edit of “Jet Airliner,” which replaces the line “funky shit going down in the city” with “funky kicks going down in the city” and adds a vocal harmony line to the replacement, represents an improvement.

But not all of the bad words got snipped. I think I can remember hearing “don’t give me that do-goody-good bullshit” in “Money” on AM radio back in the day, but I am not sure I trust the memory. (The blanked version sounds quite odd and foreign to me, however.) While many radio stations edited the line “haven’t seen a goddamn thing” from “Life in the Fast Lane,” it’s my understanding that the Eagles’ label never put out an official edit. “I’m so awful goddamn glad I’m not in your shoes,” from the Guess Who’s “Bus Rider,” was even printed in one of those song-lyric magazines I used to buy when I was a kid.

Album-rock radio always had a greater tolerance for rough language than Top 40. Neither programmers nor listeners seemed to care much. A certain level of maturity was assumed, and nobody made much of it. Today, so-called “active rock” stations are playing songs with obscenity-filled lyrics that glorify violence. Their audience accepts it, and life goes on.

As a culture, our grip on bad words in pop songs has always been kinda slippery. Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back” ended up a Top-10 hit in 1974. A year later, on “Bad Blood,” Neil Sedaka sang “the bitch is in the smile.” But in 1977, radio stations went out of their way to edit “it’s a bitch, girl” out of “Rich Girl.” Two years after that, nobody looked sideways at “go on and cry in your coffee but don’t come bitchin’ to me” in Billy Joel’s “Big Shot.”

The ebb and flow of naughty language in pop songs and on pop radio would be a good subject for further study, albeit maybe by somebody who doesn’t have the attention span of a goldfish and the work ethic of a hobo. To the extent that there’s a difference today in how people react to such language, it started back in the mid-80s with Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Council, and their campaign to warn parents about music with explicit lyrics. (That campaign, however, was focused on songs that didn’t get any radio play, and eventually jumped the shark when a Frank Zappa album got the “explicit lyrics” sticker despite being entirely intrumental.) But the ethos that fueled Mrs. Gore’s campaign—“who will save the children?”—remains today, fortified by a media superstructure that enables the weaponization of outrage, leaving little room for nuance, and certainly not for arguments about artistic freedom, personal choice, or the First Amendment. People getting amped about the content of a song in 1975 (for example) could make noise in their local community or with their local radio station. Today, some mom in West Overshoe who’s Big Mad about “abedefu” can write about it on WorldNetDaily today and be on Newsmax tomorrow, and the day after that, a whole segment of the country will be aflame with godly indignation, the kind that launches political careers.

In a nation where half of the electorate is drunk on weaponized outrage and going out of its way looking for stuff to be offended by, blanked and edited pop songs are likely to remain a part of the scene. And it’s not hard to imagine the lyric content of pop songs becoming a political issue again, eventually. But that’s a topic for another day, or maybe for The Sidepiece.

You Can’t Say That on the Radio

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(Pictured: singer and songwriter Gayle on stage, earlier this month.)

(Do I need to do a language warning here? OK, you’re warned.)

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What We Were

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(Pictured: the Ramones in 1978. Not the Reagans’ kind of people.)

I appreciate your comments at this website. All of us together have been making us each of us smarter individually for a long time. Readers catch me in mistakes or offer perspectives I either did not consider or do not share.

If there’s a type of comment that bothers me, it’s this kind: a drive-by (on a 10-year-old post) from somebody who has likely never visited this site before, who got here via a Google search, read one post, and decided that what the world most needs to know is that “I think this thing you like actually sucks.” Nothing constructive or insightful, just the Internet equivalent of egging somebody’s car.

For some people, the strongest urge in life is not for food or sex, it’s to correct strangers online. I try to imagine having the ego to do that, but I can’t.

Last week, I got a comment that I honestly don’t know how to take. Reader Bob wrote, “You’ve become like my father in his latter years … calling hard-disk drive space ‘memory.'” The most charitable way to take that is as a compliment on my voluminous capacity for recollection (albeit Google-aided). I might also take it as a suggestion that I spend too much time noodling with the past, and that my memories have blurred into an undifferentiated mush of information that no longer passes for knowledge.

Which one it is doesn’t matter, really, and I don’t choose to be offended if it’s the latter. Bob is not a drive-by reader; he’s part of this community. But he happened to comment on the same day I found something in the archives that is about being stuck in the past, and whether a person can change. I wrote it after spending some time reading a now-defunct nostalgia website whose tagline was “you are what you were.” I have edited it a bit.

I may claim that in my head it’s still 1976, but I know I am not the same person I was in 1976—and thank goodness for that. The kid who lived through the unforgettable seasons of that year had no idea how much he didn’t know about life, and [he] wouldn’t have listened if you had tried to tell him so. And when I get nostalgic about those wild nights in college, I forget that the kid participating in those wild nights was, at the risk of putting too fine a point on it, quite an asshole.

I suspect that all of us have been people we are glad to no longer be, even as we cling to the memory of having been those people.

I have, from time to time, gotten reacquainted with people I’ve known since childhood but had been out of touch with for years. Generally, we discovered that the adult versions of ourselves were far more likable than the younger versions had been. Time had sanded away our most maddening qualities, but it had left much of the good in us intact.

So we are not necessarily what we were, no. If we’re lucky, we might still retain the best of what we were.

Links and Notes: I am still trying, and mostly succeeding, at spending less time on Twitter. It has made a modest difference in my mental health, and I intend to keep staying off. But I am still finding worthwhile stuff on it now and then, and here’s some of it:

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