The preacher’s nightmare is when you feel called by God on Saturday afternoon to throw out the Sunday sermon you worked on all week and preach on something else. The podcaster’s nightmare is when you spend several hours over a period of weeks working up an episode, only to decide 24 hours before it’s supposed to air that it sucks. So there’s no Christmas podcast here today, as I had planned. In its place, here’s a rebooted post that originally ran this week in 2006. I am not sure how much of this stuff is true anymore, but it used to be.
All across the country, radio stations will launch a promotion in the next day or two (if they haven’t done so already) that many of them will call “The 12 Days of Christmas.” The details will differ but generally, this major holiday promotion has two goals in mind: A) capturing as many holiday advertising dollars as possible and B) plying the listeners with swag. Of course, the definition of “swag” is up for grabs. The best holiday prizes my radio stations ever gave away were Christmas trees decorated with dollar bills, $50 to a tree. The worst were probably certificates for free tanning. If there’s a worse prize to have to give away than free tanning certificates, I’m not sure what it is. I’d rather give away cigarettes. At one station, the prizes an advertiser provided to us were things they couldn’t sell—one I remember is an electric hot-dog bun warmer.
Back in the day, the holiday season brought out a particular sort of advertiser: the kind that hasn’t been on since last Christmas, and that won’t be on again until next Christmas, or until their going-out-of-business sale. A subset of this group consists of clients for whom the amount of aggravation they intend to put you through is inversely proportional to the amount of money they intend to spend. Clients who advertise regularly and spend a fair amount of money tend to know how advertising works, and they often trust the station to get things right. People who think they’re livin’ large by spending $100, however, will pester you until it’s like being pecked to death by a duck. Plan on at least two spec scripts and two revisions before they’ll sign on the dotted line. And then, when you finally get them to approve the ad, that’s when the fun is sometimes just beginning.
I once developed a spot for a hot-tub dealer who had been the subject of a long and difficult seduction by one of our sales reps. We put in hours of work, doing several revisions, including the time we burned down the whole damn thing and started over, but we got the buy, five ads a day for five days starting Monday—not a big buy, but a start. On Monday afternoon, the studio intercom blinked. It was the receptionist, who said, “Andrew [the sales rep] is out of the building. Can you talk to the hot-tub guy? He needs to talk to somebody right now.”
It seems the guy wanted to cancel his advertising. “It’s not working,” he told me. “Nobody’s come into the store who says they’ve heard it.”
It had been on twice.
I gently explained the concept of frequency, and I promised that I’d have Andrew call him just as soon as he got back, because Andrew got paid for that sort of advertiser triage, and I didn’t.
Toward the end of the holiday season, small-town stations start selling holiday greetings. Stations put together inexpensive packages in which advertisers can thank their many friends and customers for their patronage during the past year, and say that they look forward to serving them in the new year. There are a limited number of ways to say this, and the most commonly used version is the one in the preceding sentence. Sponsor greetings are the tanning certificates of advertising—good enough when they’re all you’ve got.
All that said, however, there were scattered moments during the holiday season when it would all seem worthwhile. You’d be on the air, and you’d play a spot on which you’d done good work and for which the client had paid a bundle, then you’d start up a really good Christmas tune and do a nice little talkover, hitting the post perfectly, then look out the window to see snowflakes dusting the station parking lot. And you’d think, “Damn, I love my job.” Tanning-certificate giveaways and all.
(Pictured: Mick and Keef perform on the barely raised stage at Altamont.)
(A version of this post has appeared at this blog previously, and at the late One Day in Your Life site. This version has been revised quite a bit.)
December 6, 1969, was a Saturday. In what is billed as college football’s “game of the century,” #1 Texas comes from two touchdowns behind to defeat #2 Arkansas 15-14. President Richard Nixon attends the game in Fayetteville, Arkansas, along with congressman and future president George H. W. Bush. There are two pro football games today. In the AFL, Joe Namath throws two touchdown passes and the New York Jets hold off a late rally to beat the Houston Oilers 34-26. In the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers beat the Chicago Bears 42-21. The Bears’ record falls to 1-11-1; the 49ers are 3-7-2. Sonny Liston is knocked out by Leotis Martin in Las Vegas; George Foreman fights on the undercard. The University of Dayton opens its new arena with a basketball game against Bowling Green. Future actress Torri Higginson and future stripper Alyssa Alps are born. The man who kidnapped Cindy Birdsong of the Supremes and two friends earlier this week turns himself in to police.
Kids’ shows on TV this morning include The Pink Panther, H. R. Pufnstuf, The Banana Splits, The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, and Cattanooga Cats. Tonight, NBC airs a Hallmark Hall of Fame special titled The Littlest Angel starring Johnnie Whittaker. It’s followed by the 1965 theatrical movie The Hallelujah Trail, a comedic western starring Burt Lancaster. ABC’s lineup includes The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, The Lawrence Welk Show, and the variety show Hollywood Palace. CBS starts with The Jackie Gleason Show, followed by the special With Love From Hollywood starring Ann-Margret and her guest Lucille Ball, and ends with episodes of Petticoat Junction and Mannix.
Jethro Tull plays the Fillmore East in New York City, Led Zeppelin plays in France, and Pink Floyd plays in Wales. Bill Cosby performs in Des Moines, Iowa, and the Monkees, now down to a trio of Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, and Michael Nesmith, play Salt Lake City. Ten Years After plays Copenhagen and Janis Joplin plays Charlottesville, Virginia. The Rolling Stones, whose new album Let It Bleed was officially released yesterday, conclude their American tour at Altamont Speedway in California with Santana, the Jefferson Airplane, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and the Grateful Dead. Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, with Eric Clapton and George Harrison on guitar, play the Empire Theater in Liverpool. It’s Harrison’s first performance in his hometown since 1965. Tomorrow’s show in London will be recorded and released next year as Delaney and Bonnie and Friends on Tour With Eric Clapton.
At WSPT in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, “Holly Holy” by Neil Diamond is #1 this week, replacing “And When I Die” by Blood Sweat and Tears, which falls to #3. “Take a Letter Maria” by R. B. Greaves is #2. Four songs are new in the Top 10, including “Someday We’ll Be Together” by the Supremes, which will be the last Hot #100 #1 of 1969, and “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” by B. J. Thomas, which will be the first Billboard #1 song of 1970. Other songs more popular in central Wisconsin than they are in other places include “Morning Dew” by the Las Vegas group Sound Foundation, Chicago favorites the Cryan Shames with “Rainmaker,” and “Ready to Ride” by Southwind, country-rockers from Los Angeles, featuring singer/guitarist John “Moon” Martin.
Perspective From the Present: Studying events from late 1969 from 50 years’ distance, the sensation of an impending ending is impossible to ignore. It may have felt that way at the time, just a little. Everyone knew how momentous the 1960s had been, and if a person had a sense of mingled relief that the decade was ending and nagging fear that the 1970s might be even wilder, nobody could have blamed them. Looking back now, certain songs popular in the last couple of months of the year give me an end-of-days vibe—“Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” “Eli’s Coming,” “Fortunate Son,” “Yesterme, Yesteryou, Yesterday,” “Cherry Hill Park,” “Baby It’s You”—but that’s cherry-picking. There were just as many songs not dark at all: “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Backfield in Motion,” “Down on the Corner,” “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Jam Up Jelly Tight,” and on and on.
On this particular day, I watched the Texas-Arkansas game, and I would probably have looked in on the pro football games, too. I did not feel like the end of days was coming. What was coming was Christmas, and nine-year-old me looked forward to it like Ralphie Parker.
(Pictured: Bill Wyman, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, and Keith Richards’ elbow on The Ed Sullivan Show, October 1964.)
Fifty years ago this weekend, the Rolling Stones appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show for the last time.
Ed Sullivan did not care much for the Rolling Stones, but he knew that his audience did, and so he brought them on his long-running Sunday night CBS variety show not just once, but six times between 1964 and 1969.
The first time, October 25, 1964, Stones fans went so crazy after “Around and Around” that Sullivan had to ask for quiet to continue the show. After “Time Is on My Side” at the end of the show, Sullivan followed an old showbiz reflex by saying, “Come on, let them hear it!” No more unnecessary exhortation has ever been given to any audience anywhere. The resultant screaming made it difficult for Sullivan to talk briefly to Mick Jagger and plug the next week’s guests. The crazed audience disturbed him; so did the Stones’ dress and deportment, which caused a few viewers to write and complain. After the show, Sullivan is said to have remarked, “I promise you, they’ll never be back on our show.”
Shrewd as he was, however, Sullivan was willing to listen when the Stones’ management approached him about another appearance. But he wanted something in return: “Before even discussing the possibility of a contract, I would like to learn from you,” he told them, “whether your young men have reformed in the matter of dress and shampoo.” They had. They appeared again on May 2, 1965, wearing jackets and performing to an audience far less amped that the one that had greeted them seven months before.
On February 13, 1966, the Stones appeared for a third time. This time, the show’s director cut to screaming girls in the audience as the band performed “Satisfaction,” which had been a #1 hit the previous summer, and he focused mostly on Mick in closeup. Later in the show, Jagger and Keith Richards performed “As Tears Go By” as a duo, and the band closed with “19th Nervous Breakdown.”
On September 11, 1966, the Stones were among the guests for Sullivan’s season-opening show. Heedless of their superstar status, Ed ruled them with an iron hand, demanding that the members wash their hair before going on. But they were rebellious rock stars, too, and so they refused Ed’s edict to stay in the theater between the dress rehearsal and the live show. They ended up having to escape from a mob of fans in the street before performing “Paint It Black,” “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby,” and “Lady Jane.” Sullivan told the audience, “You’re screaming much better this year.”
So: after four appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, and with a firm understanding of both the show’s value to them and the quirks of its host, you might think the Stones would cruise through later appearances without a hitch. But their January 15, 1967, appearance was the most rebellious of all. On that night, Sullivan did not want the Stones to sing the title line of their hit, “let’s spend the night together.” He told them to sing “let’s spend some time together” instead. Jagger agreed, but was annoyed when the show’s talent coordinators kept reminding him about it during the dress rehearsal. On the air that night, he did as he was told, but he exaggerated the line and rolled his eyes as he sang it.
(It’s often said that Mick agreed to sing the altered lyric, but then sang the original lyric on the air. Not true. That was Jim Morrison on “Light My Fire,” eight months later.)
It would be nearly three years before the Stones appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show for a final time. On that occasion, Ed went to them, flying to California where the band taped performances of “Gimme Shelter,” “Love in Vain,” and “Honky Tonk Women.” On November 23, 1969, America watched while Mick “laid a divorcee in New York City” without incident. Keef looked spectral, the audience screamed, Ed promised to visit the band backstage later in the week, and the Sixties were nearly over.
(Originally written for WNEW.com back when that was a thing, and first posted here in 2013. If you’re interested in reading about the other acts appearing with the Stones on each night’s Sullivan show, click here.)
Recently I was on the road, having lunch in a place playing one of the local radio stations. “Local” in the sense that its tower and mailing address were in the same town I was in. Its programming was not local at all. It was running a national voice-tracked format on which the only thing local were the ads—and those local ads often came at the end of interminable seven-minute breaks, the first three minutes of which were national ads and promos for the parent company’s national shows, its app, and its podcasts.
Several years ago, when the drift toward this sort of canned programming had just begun, a prominent radio executive was quoted as saying that local stations were entitled to have the strongest personalities available, and that his canned national jocks would be better than anybody local. Back then, I wrote a little about it, and after coming across that piece in the archives recently, I think it’s worth rebooting, with some minor edits.
[Whether the executive’s comment makes any sense] depends on what you think local radio is for. If it’s only to provide music and/or talk for the people within range of the signal, his philosophy has a great deal to recommend it. But if you think local radio has a service responsibility to the community in which it is located, that philosophy is harder to swallow.
The major chains put great stock in running public service announcements, which is one way stations have served their communities since Christ was a corporal (especially when paid ads aren’t selling well). You put ’em on the quarterly issues report you are required to place in your files for public inspection, and you get credit for ’em at license renewal time. But public service announcements, while important and useful, are not equivalent to broad, deep community engagement, even if you run one an hour seven days a week.
Community engagement happens in lots of ways. When important news or weather breaks, how do the people on the air talk about it? Is it happening to them, or are they watching it in a newsroom miles away? How about the mundane stuff of daily life? Are the jocks talking about their experience at the big local game or the community festival just up the road? Does the mayor ever call in, or the fire chief, or one of the local TV news anchors? When people go to the grocery store, will they ever run into the morning guy? Are they going to see the woman who does middays hosting the local public TV auction? When they go to the county fair, are the jocks staffing the station booth?
There’s a compelling argument that in our atomized, customized, short-attention-span world, local sourcing matters far less than it used to. We like to eat fresh produce in the winter and we don’t care that it comes from South America or Australia. Why should we care that the guy on the radio is in a studio 1500 miles away, and the joke he just made about the Oscars was recorded last week?
But here’s the thing: serving local communities is bred in radio’s bones. It’s what the people who invented the damn thing intended it to do. The Radio Act of 1927 required stations to operate in the “public interest, convenience, and necessity,” and generations of broadcasters did so. It’s only since the de-regulatory fever of the 1980s and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that we’ve seen the wholesale turning-away from those reasons-to-be.
Executives who talk about the superiority of national programming talk exactly like people whose job is to monetize a private asset. If that’s what you think radio is, and what it’s for—an asset that belongs to you and you alone, and has value only if turned to money, as if it were a crop of winter wheat or a carload of steel ingots—then you’ll streamline and standardize. But if you believe that radio is a public asset that you hold in trust, you’ll ask yourself not, “What should we do so we can profit from this?” but “What must we do so the public can profit from this?”
The current economic realities of radio, and the needs and desires of even small and local companies to keep up with the changes wrought by the giant chains, make it hard to put the public interest, convenience, and necessity first. Some companies still have the old way in their DNA, however, and if there’s one of them in your town, they deserve your earholes, and your marketing dollars.
Here’s a thing I wrote 10 years ago this month.
One of the most memorable days of my brief tenure as a social-studies teacher started when one of my sophomores raised a hand in the middle of a lesson on the Populist Movement and asked, “Why do we have to learn this?” As a believer in the concept of the teachable moment (and with some wiggle room in the syllabus for the semester), I decided to toss the lesson plan for the day and turn the question around: “Why do you think we have to learn this?”
We ended up talking about whether human choices affect the course of history. Several of my students were convinced they do not. The students recognized that their choices had an impact on their lives, but they didn’t believe the same thing about the choices made by others—everyone else’s actions were fixed and immutable. History is a river and humanity is in a boat, but there’s no pilot—we’re just floating along with the current, and it takes us wherever it’s going to go.
(At one point, I asked them what would have happened if John Wilkes Booth had decided not to shoot Abraham Lincoln. In the front row, a hand flew up instantaneously. “If Booth hadn’t done it, somebody else would have, because Lincoln had to die.”)
I forgave my students their perspective, though. Not until one reaches geezerhood does one completely understand the potential impact of choices, even little ones. It doesn’t take a great deal of imaginative effort to visualize a whole range of other lives you might have led: if you hadn’t taken a particular job, gotten involved with a particular person, done something you did, left something else undone—if you’d only steered the boat on a slightly different heading. It’s not exactly making a map of the roads not taken—a map shows where you’ll end up, but with visions, how can you tell? Nevertheless, conjuring with what might have been is a pastime we can’t resist. And in October, a month when time runs in reverse, it’s a greater temptation than at any other time of the year.
But here’s the thing: Even if we’d sometimes like to be someone else somewhere else doing something else, that’s not the boat we’re in. And it’s not automatically a bad thing to simply float along for a while. If we work too hard at steering the boat, we’re going to miss the scenery. Or, as Mary Chapin Carpenter puts it:
No one knows where they belong
The search just goes on and on and on
For every choice that ends up wrong
Another one’s right
A change of scene would sure be great
The thought is nice to contemplate
But the question begs why would you wait
And be late for your life
Perspective From the Present: When we were kids, Mother used to say to us—and I have heard her say it in more recent times too—“you should always have something to look forward to.” I lived by Mother’s wisdom until I was deep into adulthood, until it occurred to me that if you are always looking forward to something, you’ll miss what’s happening today. Although you won’t always succeed at it, it’s better to be here now. Don’t spend all your days focused on the future. Be here now. (Stop looking at your phone—be here, now.)
My mother’s advice is meant in the kindest, most benign way—look forward to a birthday party, a day spent with friends, that kind of thing—but some people twist it by focusing on a goal and excluding all else. Get a diploma, get a degree, get a job, climb the ladder, and 10 years from now, or 20, or 30, you can start living.
But if you work too hard at steering the boat, you’re going to miss the scenery.
“Late for Your Life,” from the 2001 album Time*Sex*Love, might be my single favorite thing by Mary Chapin Carpenter. Over the years she’s done a lot of baby-boomer philosophizing, but it strikes me that more than anything else, “Late for Your Life” is an agape love song. You may have learned in Sunday school about agape love: pure, selfless, unconditional, given without expectation of anything in return. Her kind, open-hearted concern for her listener’s happiness is clear, and the tenderness of her performance is remarkable.
(Pictured: what it looks like when the radio play-by-play guy says the game’s over, and your team won.)
Here’s part of a thing I wrote in 2011.
The sportscasters we see and hear most often are the ones who’ve hit the bigtime—network guys who do professional or major-college sports—but they make up a tiny fragment of the profession. Thousands of other broadcasters labor in local radio, or work for a minor-league team. While covering games at that level can be a lot of fun, the job is far from glamorous. Local sportscasters spend hours in rickety press boxes, some little better than sheets of plywood nailed together and reached by climbing a ladder, describing high-school games whose results will be forgotten in a day or two by all but the participants. Minor-league baseball and hockey broadcasters are usually employed by the teams they cover, which means they ride the bus with the players, adding the burden of suitcase life to the hours in rickety press boxes.
Local announcers do their own preparation for each broadcast, keep their own statistics while the game is being played, and do their own arithmetic to report those stats at the end of the game. To do the job acceptably requires a great deal of dedication beforehand and concentration during; to do it exceptionally requires superhuman degrees of both. Broadcasters for pro and major college teams have the luxury of TV monitors in the broadcast booth and access to statistics compiled for them by people who are paid to do it. A local broadcaster may experience this kind of treatment if one of the teams he covers reaches a state tournament, but maybe not even then.
The local radio sports guy often has another job at the station. He might be a news reporter, a jock, or a sales representative. And what that means is this: if the team is playing a Tuesday night road game 100 miles away, which is by no means unusual in the western two-thirds of the United States, he may not get home until the wee hours of the morning, and his alarm is going off at the usual time regardless. He may cover one game on Friday night and another on Saturday afternoon—or a game on Saturday afternoon and a second one on Saturday night in a different town. He will most likely have to schlep his own equipment from place to place, set it up, make sure it works, troubleshoot and fix if it doesn’t, do the game for which he has prepared, total the stats, tear down, and schlep the stuff back again. And if he doesn’t have a color man, he’ll have to carry an entire two-hour broadcast by himself, sometimes right down to reading the commercials. Such a guy often becomes famous in a small town, but he earns every scrap of adulation he might receive.
I am telling you all of this because I spent this past Saturday afternoon in the company of Doug and Mark, two old friends of mine who have been local sportscasters for most of the last 30 [now 40] years. I sat in the back of the broadcast booth at the college all three of us attended, and I watched the game to the accompaniment of their play-by-play call. After all this time, their broadcasts sound effortless; their enthusiasm for what they’re doing is real because it has to be, for all the reasons I’ve indicated here. And I admire anyone who knows what their calling in life is, and responds to it with everything they have.
Last month, Doug Wagen and Mark Evenstad were recognized for 40 years of doing what I describe above by being inducted into the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame as friends of the game. This is only astounding because it means I’ve known these guys that long, and not because they don’t deserve it. Doug is probably the most technically excellent play-by-play man I’ve ever heard at any level. You see exactly what he’s seeing because he communicates it so clearly. Mark’s enthusiasm is contagious; even if it’s a game between two teams you think you don’t care about, you will. He’s also the greatest jury-rigger I’ve ever known. If necessary, Mark could get a broadcast on the air from some remote location with coat hangers, duct tape, and no actual radio equipment.
Congratulations, my friends.