That’s Christmas to Me

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(Pictured: Pentatonix onstage in 2022.)

(This post contains my personal opinions only and not those of the company I work for. I wouldn’t presume to speak for them, and nobody should ever presume that I do.)

I spent maybe 25 or 30 hours programming Christmas music for my radio station’s 98 Hours show this year, finally finishing it at 12:30 on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Observations follow:

Continue reading “That’s Christmas to Me”

Picking the Hits

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One reason I got into radio was to play the music I liked to listen to, but I quickly learned that musical fandom or expertise doesn’t matter very much. Radio is the thing you’re into, not merely music. Your job is the presentation: executing the format and providing value to your audience, and to advertisers who are paying to reach them. It can’t hurt to be a fan or an expert, but it’s not necessary unless you’re doing a specialty show of some kind. A radio jock can do just fine most of the time without an especially deep understanding of the music they’re playing, especially in a world where Google exists. I play Ed Sheeran on my show literally every day while being not remotely interested in him, yet when I talk about him, you can’t tell. I did country radio for a long time, and it was the same way: fake it ’til you make it. A person who works for a rhythmic CHR station can quite easily be someone who listens to Americana driving home. Some DJs don’t even like music all that much.

I am convinced that the number of radio jocks who would pick their own music every day if they could is vanishingly small. It’s not our job. I don’t want to pick it on weekdays because I need to concentrate on my presentation. I pick only a few on my weekend speciaty show and let the scheduling software do the rest because I want to concentrate on my presentation.

Any given radio station, especially in a small or medium-sized market, may not be creatively involved in selecting what songs to play and how often to play them. Back in the day, stations would make playlist decisions based on national charts such as those compiled by Radio and Records, which meant they were following the lead of larger and more influential stations. Today, the same stations might rely on airplay data from Mediabase—still following the lead of other stations. While stations may fiddle at the margins with individual titles in their “gold” libraries, the older songs they continue to play, most will be pretty conservative, playing the same hits from the past that similar stations are continuing to play. There are exceptions: stations with adventuresome music programming philosophies, those who can still afford to pay for local music research, or those trying to differentiate themselves from close competitors in the same format. But when margins are so thin—when, in a rated market, one-tenth of a share point can translate to thousands of dollars in advertising revenue—Rule Number One is frequently Safety First.

Some individual jocks do pick their own music. So-called “free-form” radio, programmed by the person on the air, still exists in a few places, although those places tend to be listener-supported stations or subscription-based satellite radio. But even when free-form was practiced by commercial stations that had to attract and satisfy advertisers, it usually wasn’t a free-for-all. Jocks often had limits; for example, they might be told that they had to play cuts from certain currently popular albums, and they might even have been limited to specific cuts from those albums.

Certain free-form jocks developed a following. You’d listen to them and think, This guy’s taste is just like mine. But it was actually a neat trick. “This guy’s taste” had to reflect the taste of lots of different kinds of people, to bring as many people as possible into the tent and keep them there. And so even on a free-form show, there was always architecture in place behind the scenes that conformed to a philosophy and was meant to achieve a goal. Also behind the scenes was frequently a lot of work in advance. A free-form music show, like any other radio show, succeeds to the extent that the person hosting it has prepared for it before they begin. You can’t just walk into the studio and say, What do I feel like playing tonight? 

TL, DR: Programming music on the radio is not the job lots of people think it is. It’s both harder and easier than it seems.

This post was supposed to go up on Friday but I decided it needed a little more editing that I wouldn’t have time for. I am not convinced it isn’t still fundamentally flawed in some way. Radio jocks, ex-jocks, and interested bystanders, I welcome your comments.

Political Pioneer

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(Pictured: rural Illinois. Not visible: potholes, probably.)

From the 1970s onward, the western part of Illinois was sometimes called the state of Forgottonia (state bird the albatross, state flower the forget-me-not). The region had sent few if any Democrats to the state legislature since the 1930s, and decades later, its dogged Republicanism had a cost. Republican governments felt little need to shed state largesse on the region since it would vote for them no matter what; Democratic governments knew that however much money they spent to benefit the region, it wouldn’t keep people from voting Republican. As a result, issues that mattered to the people of Forgottonia were often, well, forgotten. Existing roads and bridges were in terrible shape, and new roads were badly needed to better link the region to the rest of the Midwest.

In 1986, I was on the radio in Macomb, which was sometimes considered the capital of Forgottonia. In that year, George Lipper, who formerly owned the station I worked for (a man I have written about here), decided to run for the state legislature as a Democrat. George had been a strong infrastructure advocate for years, wherever he lived. He believed that good roads were as critical to economic development in the 1980s as canals and railroads had been in the 19th century. And after the General Assembly member representing our part of Forgottonia opposed Governor Jim Thompson’s “Build Illinois” infrastructure and development plan, George decided to run against him.

I can’t remember all of the details surrounding Build Illinois; Thompson was a Republican, and there were suggestions that the money was being targeted to help Republican electoral prospects across the state. One would have expected the incumbent legislator, also a Republican, to heartily support an infusion of money into his district, but he did not.

(Why would Big Jim earmark money for a district that would vote to reelect him anyway? I have heard the following story, which I am not sure is true: at some point during his term, Thompson was scheduled to appear somewhere in the region. He was unable to fly that day and had take a limo from Springfield, whereupon he was directly introduced to Forgottonia’s crappy roads.)

George’s candidacy was such a longshot that the state Democratic Party wouldn’t return his calls, and he was forced to raise money door-to-door. One day, I got a call from him asking me to personally produce his radio ads. In one of them, he intended to use a soundbite of the incumbent, from a press conference in which he said, “I opposed Build Illinois.”

I’d been through several election cycles in radio by then, but I had never heard a political ad that did such a thing. I even wondered whether it was ethical, and if it would be effective to use his opponent’s own words and voice against him. I didn’t say anything about it to George, however. I put the ads together, wrapping George’s script, which he voiced, around the incumbent’s words, and I tacked on the paid-for announcement in my own voice. Then I made a few copies (on small reels of tape) so that George could send them to other stations in the district, and we were done.

When the ad began to run, the incumbent lost his shit. It wasn’t long before he started running an ad accusing George of taking his words out of context, crying that there was more to his comments than that short soundbite. And in truth there was, but it was him elaborating on why he thought it was a bad idea for the state to spend money on a popular program designed to boost the economy and help people.

I wish that I could tell you that George’s groundbreaking gambit and my radio production skills were integral parts of a winning campaign, but I cannot. He did, however, get a larger percentage of the vote in the district than any Democrat in many years. But come 1988, he did not run again. In that year, after his 1986 opponent decided to run for a judgeship instead of reelection to the Assembly, a local businessman who had been instrumental in George’s 1986 campaign won the seat.

Today, politicians and PACs use soundbites from their opponents in ads all the time. (And it’s equally common for the opponents to claim that their words have been taken out of context.) As it happens, I may have been involved in pioneering this practice. Sorry, America.

One Thing Right

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This is the second part of a thing. Read the first part here.

It must be true for other careers, not just radio: when you choose it as a young kid, when it becomes the dream of your life, you idealize it. I certainly did. When I pretended to be on the radio, up in my boyhood bedroom talking over the songs on WLS or WCFL, I had all the fun of being a radio jock—cracking wise, hitting the post, just generally sounding cool—without all of the reality I would eventually learn about.

To wit: off-air responsibilities, sometimes tedious or unrewarding. Weird working hours that put you out of sync with other people in your life. Weekends and holidays on the air, which can do the same. Difficult colleagues. Clueless bosses. Small paychecks. Playing music you don’t particularly like. The ratings. Wondering if your talent is enough. The feeling that nobody, listeners or management, understands or cares about the effort you’re putting in.

Practically nobody ever quits radio because they hate being on the air. What drives out most of those who leave is overwhelmingly the other stuff. But being behind the studio door, headphones on, microphone cracked, talking to the people—the process and the feeling of making a show—that’s what keeps us coming back to work every day, and to the industry itself if ever we leave it, in spite of the other stuff.

For a radio lifer, being on the air can be like chasing the dragon. You want the rush you get when it feels like it feels when you dream of how it should feel. You won’t get it every time and probably not even very often, but when you do, it’s like nothing else. The specifics depend on who you are: music jock, talk host, play-by-play announcer. But the realization is the same: you’re an addict, and you know you’ll never kick.

I was on the air a couple of Saturday nights back, doing my 70s music show. I was talking over the introduction of a record, delivering the bit I had scripted a few minutes before. I hadn’t thought about it in advance, but as I spoke, I found myself instinctively reaching for the post I knew was in the intro, hitting it, and then finishing the bit right as the vocal began, with my best boss-jock flourish. And as I did it, I flashed on the way I had done that very thing 50 years before, upstairs in my bedroom at home, while I was pretending to be on the radio, probably with that very same song.

In that moment, I caught the dragon.

Anyone who is even halfway self-aware, no matter who they are or what they do, sometimes has doubts about the choices they’ve made. About a career, or a particular aspect of that career. About a relationship. About how they responded to a situation or answered a question. Lying awake at night, or during those long hours behind the wheel when the mind wanders, we wonder: did I do the right thing? What if I got it wrong? Should I be doing this thing that I am doing? Or should I be doing something else?

In 2011, I wrote this:

We have moments in which we see our lives whole. The dreams we had and the way they came true—or didn’t. The ways in which we have succeeded, and in which we have failed. What we have done, and what we have left undone. We see the faces and hear the voices of those we love and those we have lost. Everything that was, everything that is—and, perhaps, everything that is going to be—rushes in on us all at once.

That Saturday night, everything that was, everything that is, and everything that is going to be rushed in on me, all at once. I was reminded that in my life, amidst all the missteps and regrets and better roads not taken, I got at least one thing right.

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. 

Continue reading “Plugged In”