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.)

Continue reading “You Can’t Say That on the Radio”

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:

Continue reading “What We Were”

Everything for Everyone

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(Pictured: You have forgotten—and by “you,” I mean me—that in 1971, Shelley Fabares played Joy Piccolo opposite James Caan, in Brian’s Song.)

(I’m not convinced my argument in the following post isn’t profoundly flawed in some way, and if so I trust you will point it out, but it’s time to hit “publish” and move on.)

Many amongst the readership were enchanted by my story last week about the clueless young DJ who followed a Motley Crue record with Shelley Fabares’ 1963 hit “Johnny Angel” played at the wrong speed. No, there’s no tape. I heard it while I was driving home one night, and it was so absurd that I half-believed I was hallucinating it after a long day at work.

I mentioned it as an example of how the competitor station we called Brand X was hilariously bad, although it represents a familiar line of small-market thinking: if we program something for everyone, then everyone will listen. But that wasn’t true in 1992, and it hadn’t been true since the 1960s, before targeted formats became a thing. A person who liked “Johnny Angel” did not have to sit through Motley Crue every day waiting to hear “Johnny Angel”; they could find a radio station that played “Johnny Angel” all the time.

(“But I like a variety of music on the radio.” Yes, but chances are you like it within certain limits: a variety of classic rock, or as the famous adult-contemporary positioning statement says, “today’s hits and yesterday’s favorites.” Most people aren’t turning on the radio to hear a Haydn string quartet in the same quarter-hour with a new Drake song. The we-play-anything Jack stations that proliferated in the early 00s had carefully curated libraries, and so do today’s variety stations. You can’t build a bridge between Motley Crue people and Johnny Angel people and expect advertisers to pay for it.)

Why was Brand X playing Motley Crue in the first place? Because they believed that the local high-schoolers were listening to their hopeless mishmash, on AM. “They live here, so naturally they listen to us.” Unless you are quite literally the only signal audible on the dial, there’s nothing natural or automatic about it. Most people need a better reason than that. There was no way for a crappy little AM peashooter to “out-music” a half-dozen crystal-clear FM stereo stations, even if those stations were 30 miles down the road. If music is what a listener wants, that’s where they’re going, no matter what their age.

But to attract other potential listeners, Brand X had the same advantages my stations had. It involved the stuff we did that the bigger stations would not and could not do. It was in our local personalities, local news and sports coverage, the commitment to broadcast from the local summer festival, and even in the commercials from local advertisers who had neither the need nor the budget to be on one of the bigger stations. You could—and we did—capture the listeners for whom that is a major attraction.

The music you play around that stuff is secondary. Many of your listeners may not care about music all that much. If you want to keep them, the music shouldn’t work against you—which is what a mindless “something for everyone” commitment to variety risks. At KDTH, we emphasized pop country over hardcore twangers, figuring that Kenny Rogers’ appeal (to name one) was broader than that of George Jones, and would retain more of the people who listened for local news, the homemaker show, and University of Iowa football. Competing against Brand X, we ran a format that played current adult hits but was also heavy on 60s and 70s rock and pop. The idea was to be highly familiar without going too far out—to not let the records work against us. If it was a little bland, it was also safe. (Unlike a Motley Crue-to-Johnny Angel segue.) It didn’t get in the way of our broader purpose, which was to entertain people who weren’t necessarily there for the music to begin with.

In major-market radio, your music is often your reason for being. Back in the day, small-market stations made a mistake when they believed it was their reason for being, too. We had to compete on ground where we had an advantage. Today, in a world of streaming audio, there’s a certain irony in major-market stations struggling to learn and embrace what we in the small markets knew 30 or 40 years ago, about how to be relevant when you can’t “out-music” your competition.

Stereo Stories

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(Pictured: Whitney Houston performs in 1991.)

I was listening to a podcast the other day that mentioned radio simulcasts of TV music shows. This kind of thing goes way back: in 1958, ABC offered rudimentary stereo broadcasts of certain episodes of The Lawrence Welk Show: the TV audio carried one side of the stereo mix and you tuned your radio to a local station to get the other. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), the Grateful Dead, Boz Scaggs, and Van Morrison pioneered radio simulcasts of televised concerts during the first half of the 1970s. The syndicated TV show Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, which ran from 1973 to 1981, was simulcast on some FM radio stations. One goal of the simulcasts was better audio fidelity. TV speakers were not built with high-quality audio reproduction in mind. The big speakers attached to the music system in your bedroom or family room were much, much better.

The major networks started sporadically broadcasting stereo sound in the mid-1980s, but it would be another decade before all primetime programming was in stereo. For several years in this transitional period, a lot of concerts broadcast on HBO were accompanied by stereo simulcasts in local radio markets. It was a win-win for everybody involved; HBO got the eyeballs, and the radio stations got an exclusive show featuring a major pop star—Paul Simon, Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, and so on.

At about the same time, AM stereo became a thing. Several competing systems duked it out for preference before GM, Ford, and Chrysler essentially settled the debate by offering C-QUAM AM stereo in cars beginning with the 1985 model year. (Nevertheless, it would take the FCC eight more years to make C-QUAM the official standard in America.) But AM stereo never became much more than a curiosity, although it wasn’t for lack of trying, at least in some places.

In the early 90s, I worked for an AM/FM combo in small-town Iowa. Our competitor in town, which we referred to as Brand X, was a stand-alone AM; a few years earlier its owner had decided to sell off a 100,000-watt FM signal and put all of the eggs into a 1,000-watt AM basket—an interesting business decision, to be sure. Brand X was, in general, hilariously bad, block-programmed with everything from hip-hop to big band, sometimes in the same hour. (Once, I heard a teenage girl hosting an evening shift segue from something by Motley Crue into Shelley Fabares’ “Johnny Angel,” the latter at the wrong speed.) But advertiser loyalty and listener habit, built up over 50 years on the air, kept them viable.

As you might expect, Brand X was a true believer in AM radio. They went stereo sometime around 1990. They gave away AM stereo-equipped radios, and they frequently promoted their sponsor remotes by telling listeners to come and hear AM stereo—an excellent idea. The curiosity value would get people in the sponsor’s door, and the demonstration would help build demand for home use of AM stereo, which was pretty still limited. Brand X was in on the ground floor.

Then Brand X decided to carry HBO’s latest stereo simulcast. (Whitney Houston, if I’m recalling correctly.) They promoted it for weeks, which would have been fine if they had simply hyped the fact that they would be carrying a live Whitney Houston concert in stereo. But their promotion centered entirely on “watch Whitney on HBO while you listen in stereo on Brand X.” It did not occur to them that 96 to 99 percent of the AM stereo radios within earshot of their signal were in cars. Not exactly convenient unless you were planning to balance the TV on the hood.

I have one other stereo story to tell. At some point in the middle of the 1980s, while I was in small-town Illinois, an FM station in nearby Peoria had a problem. They had a glut of high-school games to cover and only one signal on which to broadcast. Until it dawned on them that they had, in fact, two. And so, one Saturday, they decided to broadcast one game on the left channel and another on the right. I wish I could tell you what it sounded like, but I didn’t hear it. I wish I could tell you what kind of response it got, but I don’t recall. I still respect it, however, as the kind mad-scientist thinking you just don’t find in radio anymore.

When Old Things Weren’t Old

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(Pictured: Wolfman Jack in the 60s.)

On a Facebook group devoted to classic Top 40 radio, I recently read a lengthy thread started by somebody who argued—not for the first time in this particular group—that Cumulus or Audacy or iHeart should take some signal in Chicago and bring back WLS the way WLS was in the 60s and 70s, recreating the hot-rockin’ Top 40 radio so many group members were weaned on. It would just have to be a hit, because look how many people here on Facebook love that stuff. A number of readers chimed in to agree.

In another group I read, devoted to local history, a moderator posted a newspaper article and photo about an old building that was being torn down to make way for a parking lot. One commenter wrote about how sad it is that old buildings aren’t preserved. Others agreed, and talked about how regrettable it is that people don’t care about their history. But here’s a plot twist: the article and photo were from 1953, and the building torn down was only about 50 years old. To people back then, the building was a thing that had outlived its usefulness. It was replaced by something that, it was hoped, would bring a greater benefit to the community. We can scarcely blame the people of that time for not seeing the “significance” that we assign to it nearly 70 years later.

The Top 40 radio we loved so much back in the day is the same thing. There was little sense among the people involved that they were creating a unique art form that might be worth preserving someday. It was utilitarian. For the jocks, it was a job. For the owners, it was a way to make money. And when something came along that would bring a greater benefit to the community (or the stockholders), it was torn down and replaced with something new.

My exasperation with these dreamy Facebookers has grown the more I think about it. Jesus on two sticks, people, you don’t need to reboot those stations for the music; that’s already out there, on countless streamers, to whatever degree of library depth you want. And outside your Facebook echo chamber, practically nobody is interested in that kind of radio. Even if they were, its audience would be considered “too old” by most potential advertisers. Cumulus, Audacy, and iHeart aren’t going to put it on for nothing. (Even though aging boomers with disposable income should be a prime sales target for cars and vacations and luxury goods, just watch MeTV or Antenna TV for a half-hour to see the type of advertiser willing to spend money on them.)

Also, people forget that Sirius/XM already has channels attempting to recreate classic Top 40 radio—60s on 6 and 70s on 7—and they’re awful. They recreate the form, but without the spirit. And when people say they miss 60s and 70s Top 40 radio, the spirit is what they’re talking about. It’s something rooted in time and place, and the experience of listening in that time and place, and being who you were. The spirit is the critical element, and it’s impossible to duplicate. You can’t do it only with jocks and jingles.

(One day a radio colleague told me that he had produced a spot and saved it to the proper folder on the server, but when he got back to his desk he couldn’t find it. I joked, “This never happened when we carried a tape down the hall.” I am convinced that some of the Facebookers would see this incident as a legitimate argument for bringing back recording tape and cart machines.)

I am probably the most nostalgic person you know. This entire damn website is an exercise in nostalgia. I have spent most of my adult life looking back. I can be nostalgic for years that didn’t seem very special while I was living them. I cherish and take comfort in revisiting the places I have been and the experiences I have had. But I grow weary of the myopia from people of my generation who mistake normal processes of growth and change for assaults on All We Hold Dear. (It’s a major source of much of the current trouble we’re in as a nation.)

The past is gone, and it ain’t coming back. Not because people don’t care about old things, or because they didn’t care when those old things weren’t old. Like it or not, we live only in the now, and the road we travel goes only one way.

The Person in the Mirror

The death of Howard Hesseman over the weekend came as a surprise, but it probably shouldn’t have. So many people who are important to us are well past their Biblical three-score-and-ten (Hesseman was 81), and the losses are going to multiply. Hesseman’s death apparently came after complications from colon surgery, which hits me close to home.

Every single obit of Hesseman mentions Dr. Johnny Fever and WKRP in Cincinnati in the first sentence, although he spent as many seasons as history teacher Charlie Moore on Head of the Class in the middle of the 80s. He was a master comedic improviser going back to his days with The Committee. Michael McKean paid tribute to Hesseman’s improv skills on Twitter the other day, and said that his role in This Is Spinal Tap was devised literally 24 hours before it was shot. Hesseman’s first acting credits included The Andy Griffith Show and the 60s reboot of Dragnet, for which he was billed under his early stage name “Don Sturdy.” He actually worked in radio for a while, at KMPX in San Francisco, and he even dated Janis Joplin.

For a lot of us in radio, the person we see when we look in the mirror is Dr. Johnny Fever. He’s as funny and cool as we’d like to imagine we are. But it’s more than just having the right line at the right time. A lot of radio jocks will tell you that what’s especially great about Howard Hesseman’s portrayal of Fever is how realistic it is. In a post about the people of WKRP from 2015, I wrote:

There are lots of Johnny Fevers in real stations: they’ve been in big markets and small, been married and divorced, seen and done things that make for good stories. Now they’re a little older, a little tired, and would just like to find a place to fit in, and be as happy as possible in an industry structured to make happiness elusive. (I suspect Johnny would agree that you can love radio, but you shouldn’t expect it to love you back.)

In the second-season episode “Mike Fright,” Johnny explains to Bailey how radio works. He tells her that he simply talks into the microphone and his voice goes “out through the wires,” and “once a week, whether you need it or not, somebody comes in here and gives you a check for $38.”

He says it with his characteristic insouciance. But once you watch the entire series and you know who Johnny Fever is, you hear how it epitomizes his character, and you hear the accumulated wisdom in it. Series creator Hugh Wilson wrote the line, but some of its wisdom had to have come from Howard Hesseman himself. He knew what it was like to work in radio, and he knew people who were still in the industry. His delivery carries the weight of lived-in truth. There’s his description of the weird alchemy of radio—just how does his voice go to all of the places it goes? Who knows? Clearly, it matters that a DJ’s voice goes places, because somebody pays you for putting it onto the wires. But you had better learn to take your satisfactions where you can (“whether you need it or not”), because they aren’t going to pay you very much.

People talk about the scene where the station changes format (“boooooooger”), but his explanation of radio is a more definitive Johnny Fever scene.

The little secret about WKRP in Cincinnati is that across the entirety of the series, it’s not quite as good as you remember; a lot of episodes drag in the middle or are doomed from the start by ill-advised premises. But many individual scenes are as funny as anything you’ve ever seen on television, and many of those feature Hesseman. And as long as veteran radio jocks long for a place to fit in, to be who they are, to love what they do, and are willing to take $38 a week to do it, Johnny Fever will never die.