Category Archives: Repeat Posts

What’s Radio For?

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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. 

Be Here Now

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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.

A Calling for the Game

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(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.

Monty Python’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

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(Pictured: John Cleese, Neil Innes, Michael Palin, and Eric Idle in a candid moment on the Holy Grail set.)

(This post is rebooted from some stuff I have rebooted before. If you don’t like that, get your own blog.)

Fifty years ago, on October 5, 1969, the first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus aired on the BBC. The show came ashore in the States sometime around 1975, and I became one of those Python nerds who can recite entire sketches from memory. Not only that, I was committed to spreading the Python gospel. I was the prime mover behind our high school literary magazine showing Python’s sketch film And Now for Something Completely Different as a fundraiser—which means I was also responsible for getting us into trouble, after a highly conservative family who had come to the movie expecting a film about an actual circus sic’ed the school board on us.

George Harrison is supposed to have said that the Pythons carried the spirit of the Beatles into the 70s. I think he was onto something. Let’s see where extending the metaphor might take us as we look at the Python oeuvre, album by album.

—The story goes that Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1970) was recorded in front of an audience of elderly people who had been recruited to watch a comedy show but were in no wise prepared for what they saw. It’s made up of sketches from the first 13 episodes of the series, aired in 1969 and 1970. If it were a Beatles album, it would be one of the early records, on which they showcased songs they’d learned in their scuffling early days.

—Another Monty Python Record (1971) features a scratched-up cover from a recording of Beethoven’s Second Symphony—which is how the clerk at the record store where I bought mine wrote up the invoice. Monty Python’s Previous Record (1972) was the first to contain sketches that never appeared on TV, and one that came from Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus, two editions of which aired on German and Austrian TV in 1972. These albums have a feel similar to Rubber Soul: the group is pushing their boundaries and refining their art.

—If George was right, The Monty Python Matching Tie and Handkerchief (1973) is the group’s Revolver—the material is significantly more ambitious than their earlier material. Original vinyl pressings included a set of concentric grooves on side two, meaning that it contained two different programs depending on where you dropped the needle.

—And if Matching Tie and Handkerchief was Python’s Revolver, then The Album of the Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) is their Sgt. Pepper. It’s a complete comedic whole, with new sketch material linking clips from the film. Some of the new material is among the funniest stuff they ever made. (Hear it all here.)

—Monty Python Live at City Center (1976) was rushed out less than a month after the group’s April 1976 live shows in New York City. Some of the sketches were featured on the syndicated radio show The Kingbiscuit Flower Hour in May, and if you think I was listening (and rolling tape) that night, you’re right. The radio show featured a special introduction recorded by host Dave Herman and John Cleese. In their catalog, Live at City Center has been replaced by the 1974 UK-only Live at Drury Lane. There’s not really a Beatles analogue to this one, unless it’s the Beatles’ Hollywood Bowl album, released in 1976.

—If the Holy Grail soundtrack was Sgt. Pepper, then the Life of Brian soundtrack (1979) was Let It Be—some nuggets of good stuff padded out to album length by any means necessary. Ditto the final album of new Python material, the soundtrack to The Meaning of Life, released in 1983.

(I don’t love Life of Brian the way other Python fans and movie critics do. It’s fine, but Holy Grail is better. And unlike Holy Grail, The Meaning of Life doesn’t hold up for repeated viewing.)

—Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album was released between the two film soundtracks, in 1980. It’s rather like the White Album—most tracks feature only one or two members. Two of the major sketches are rebooted from material going back to pre-Python days.

A half-century from their debut, Monty Python shares something else with the Beatles: remaining eternally ripe for discovery by new generations of fans. The best tribute to Python’s innovation is also Beatle-derived. Both groups’ success resulted in the coining of new adjectives: Beatlesque and Pythonesque. Apply them to something today, and everyone knows what you mean.

“Moonflight” and Other Spacey Songs

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We have written from time to time around here about music and the space program. In 1962, the Telstar communications satellite inspired a number of records, including the #1 hit of the same name by the Tornadoes.  The tradition of the musical space wake-up began during the Gemini era and continued through the end of the space-shuttle program. In early 1972, with nine Apollo missions in the books and two more set to fly that year, a group of British studio musicians called Apollo 100 scored a Top-10 hit with “Joy.” In 1973, the Ventures (who had cut a version of “Telstar” back in the day) recorded “Skylab (Passport to the Future),” which spent a couple of weeks on the Easy Listening chart. Other space-inspired songs from the 60s and 70s include “Space Oddity” and “Rocket Man” and “Space Truckin’,” the 80s hit “Major Tom (Coming Home)” and a number of spacey film soundtracks that span the decades. But the historic flight of Apollo 11 was especially inspirational, as you’ll see on the flip.

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Elevator Going Down

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(Pictured: Elton John and bandmate Davey Johnstone in a hotel elevator at some point in the 70s.)

Here’s another rebooted post from the earliest days of this blog—in this case, April 22, 2005.

Piped-in music isn’t what it used to be. Very few stores will trust anything so random as a local radio station to provide a background for customers anymore. Many stores have their own music services, delivered by satellite, and no doubt carefully researched to facilitate the separation of people from their money. Some companies will actually sell you CDs of the music they play in their stores.

My local convenience store plays oldies mostly from the 60s to the early 80s. Nevertheless, I was a bit surprised to hear James Brown’s “Sex Machine” as I dropped in for my morning constitutional today. To hear JB stripped down and hitting on the one while I was filling a giant mug full of Diet Pepsi was a bit like slipping into an alternate universe where decaffeinated light-FM hip-hop and the steroidal boot of rap are both curiosities, and true funk is the chosen music of millions.

(Digression: The Mrs. and I have some old friends whose daughter we have watched grow up. One morning when the girl was three or four, her father heard her singing something while everyone was getting dressed in the morning. As he listened closely, he determined that she was singing “Sex Machine.” He also determined it was probably time to cut back on the James Brown records for a while.)

Then again, maybe my little suburb is an under-the-radar funk zone. One fine Sunday morning, I made a quick run to our neighborhood grocery store. While I was maneuvering my cart past the suburban dads loaded with beer and chips and various grandmothers with cat food and paper plates, I noticed that the store’s music, at a barely audible level, was playing “Saturday Night” by Earth, Wind and Fire. So there I was, in the cereal aisle, getting my schwerve on. But the store topped itself in the next few minutes by playing Honey Cone’s great 1971 hit “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.” Somebody must have dialed up the wrong channel by mistake.

The rise of specially programmed in-store music channels (often containing commercials) has accompanied the near-demise of elevator music: those light-and-lovely instrumental versions of pop and rock hits made to be ignored, or more precisely, made to seep into your brain at a subconscious level to relax you, make you feel more alert, or go Communist. As a radio format, elevator music, known officially as “beautiful music,” is largely dead, too—because its target audience is largely dead. But in its heyday, elevator music plundered all genres of popular music for familiar tunes. Some of my all-time favorite elevator-music remakes include Waylon Jennings’ “Luckenbach, Texas,” “Synchronicity II” by the Police, and—I swear it’s true—“Rock and Roll All Nite” by KISS.

I worked at an elevator-music radio station for a while, back in the late 80. It wasn’t quite as tomblike a place as you might expect—I got hired precisely because I was a jock with a personality, and that was what the station wanted. Alas, none of those delightfully bizarre remakes were on our station. Our library was pretty pedestrian, really. There were no KISS or Police remakes, although I seem to recall a version of Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face” and a remake of Tiffany’s cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” which had recently been a hit. The instrumentals weren’t all bad. You’d get the occasional classic jazz tune, Brubeck’s “Take Five” or Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd’s “Desafinado.” However, there’s no denying it was mostly the Swelling Strings Orchestra doing “Red Roses for a Blue Lady.”

No wonder you’d get sleepy on the night shift.

Some years after I wrote this, I heard “I Ain’t Superstitious” by the Jeff Beck Group and “Little Sister” by Stevie Ray Vaughan in the same convenience store, and “Dixie Chicken” by Little Feat at a different grocery store. At first I feared the latter might be some kind of a promotion for the meat department, but I was grateful to determine it was not.

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