Playing the Hits

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(Pictured: in 1982, Pac-Man was the biggest hit of all.)

On the front page of Radio and Records from May 7, 1982, is a story about WBBM-FM in Chicago adopting consultant Mike Joseph’s Hot Hits format. Joseph, already a successful programmer in places such as New York City and Detroit (as architect of the legendary WKNR, Keener 13), reasoned that people wanted to hear the hits, period, so that’s what he gave them. A Hot Hits station played its top five songs once per hour, with a few other current hits mixed in around them. The station’s entire on-air library might be 50 songs, if that.

Joseph’s first major-market Hot Hits station was WCAU-FM in Philadelphia. On 5/7/82, it reported to R&R a conventional-looking list of 40 songs plus a handful of new and uncharted songs. Five songs appear on the list with the letter H, which I am guessing were the ones being heard every hour: “Ebony and Ivory” by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, “Empty Garden” by Elton John, Asia’s “Heat of the Moment,” “Crimson and Clover” by Joan Jett, and “Let It Whip” by the Dazz Band.

Hot Hits peaked in a time when hot-rockin’, flame-throwin’ Top 40 radio was migrating to FM, and Joseph brought those elements to his client stations. The format was crowded with jingles and sweepers, and the jocks were required to keep it tight. If a song intro was 14 seconds long, they had to talk for 14 seconds. If they went 12 or 13, they were likely to be hotlined by Joseph himself, if he happened to be in town. A high-energy presentation was mandatory, even with the softer songs. At WHYT in Detroit, where the format launched in 1983, one of the jocks told me that he would be physically wrung out at the end of every shift.

To determine what “the hits” were, Joseph looked closely at record sales. He played what people were buying. Radio always claimed that this is what it did, but what they meant was “we’re playing the music people are buying as long as it fits our format.” In Philadelphia, Joseph would play R&B and new-wave hits that hadn’t broken big on Top 40 stations elsewhere. In this week, the WCAU-FM list is pretty conventional, but it does include a few songs that never became big Top 40 hits: “Murphy’s Law” by Cheri, Atlantic Starr’s “Circles,” “Apache” by the Sugar Hill Gang, “Mama Used to Say” by Junior, “Genius of Love” by Tom Tom Club, and the Temptations’ “Standing on the Top.”

The pure Hot Hits format burned out quickly. WBBM-FM, newly christened B96, started tinkering with Joseph’s formula almost immediately. Within a year or two, the format’s moment was passing, but its influence lingered. After stations Joseph had consulted let their agreements lapse, they kept some of his principles intact.

After Mike Joseph died in 2018, Sean Ross wrote about his career and his impact. Go read it.

What else was in R&R 40 years ago this week?

Continue reading “Playing the Hits”

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.

April 18, 1972: A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done

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(Pictured: Apollo 16 commander John Young burns rubber on the moon in April 1972.)

April 18, 1972, is a Tuesday. The weather is pleasant across most of the country. In the Midwest, high temperatures reach into the 70s, well above normal. Apollo 16 is on its way to the moon after launch on Sunday afternoon. John Young and Charlie Duke are expected to become the ninth and 10th humans to walk on the moon after touchdown on Thursday night. The Command Module pilot is Ken Mattingly, who famously missed the Apollo 13 disaster two years ago after being grounded for exposure to the measles. On Earth, President Nixon orders a halt in the massive bombing campaign currently underway against Hanoi and Haiphong, which has been intended to force the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table. The two-week assault is the most extensive in three years; in its wake, college campuses have erupted again. Today students at the University of Maryland are teargassed; protesters at Stanford break windows. About 100 campuses plan student strikes for Friday. Other headlines include the massive recall of every 1972 Ford Torino and Mercury Montego, an estimated 436,000 vehicles, to repair faulty rear axles.

Tonight, the Los Angeles Lakers take a 3-2 lead in the NBA Western Conference Finals with a 115-90 win over the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar leads all scorers with 28; Wilt Chamberlain grabs 26 rebounds for the Lakers. The New York Knicks and Boston Celtics will resume the Eastern finals tomorrow night in Boston. The Knicks lead that series 2-0. (The Lakers will win the series in Milwaukee on Saturday and beat the Knicks in the Finals.) Major League Baseball’s season was delayed by a 13-day players’ strike, which was settled last Thursday. Games began on Saturday. All 24 teams are in action today. The Montreal Expos are the National League’s only unbeaten team at 3-and-0 after a 7-2 win over the New York Mets. The American League’s lone unbeaten is the Detroit Tigers, now 2-and-0 after a 5-3 win at Baltimore. Also in the AL, the Chicago White Sox get their first win, 14-0 over the Texas Rangers, the former Washington Senators now playing in Arlington, Texas. It’s the first nighttime home opener in White Sox history, and it’s over early: in the bottom of the first, the first five Sox batters get to Rangers starter Bill Gogolewski for three hits, a walk, and a home run by Carlos May.

On TV tonight, NBC airs an hour of highlights from Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings into the bombing of Haiphong, sandwiched by Double Jeopardy, a detective story starring Lauren Bacall and Zsa Zsa Gabor (originally aired as an episode of Bob Hope Chrysler Theater in 1965) and an episode of James Garner as Nichols. CBS airs a news special called What’s New at School? that examines the differences between a traditional New York City elementary classroom and a more informal “open classroom” in North Dakota. It’s followed by episodes of Hawaii Five-O and Cannon. ABC airs an episode of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and the TV movie The Birdmen before its live broadcast of the Lakers/Bucks game.

Accompanied by an entourage of over 100 people, Elvis Presley plays San Antonio. Procol Harum plays Milwaukee. Creedence Clearwater Revival plays Jacksonville, Florida, with opening acts Tony Joe White and Tower of Power. Detroit, led by Mitch Ryder, plays the first of two shows scheduled for tonight in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; the second is cancelled after a fire breaks out in the theater. A local radio station convinces Ryder to stay in town and play an outdoor show tomorrow night.

Michael Jackson’s “Rockin’ Robin” is the #1 song in Cash Box this week, knocking “A Horse With No Name” by America to #3 after three weeks at the top. “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” by Roberta Flack, jumps to #2. (It’s currently #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.) Three songs are new in the Top 10: “Betcha By Golly Wow” by the Stylistics, “A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done” by Sonny and Cher, and “Day Dreaming” by Aretha Franklin. The hottest record on the Cash Box Top 40 is “Look What You Done for Me” by Al Green, up from #38 to #18.

In Wisconsin, nature is waking up after the long winter. It’s possible that on this warm day, windows of one particular farmhouse are open and laundry is hung on the line for the first time this year. It is difficult for one particular sixth-grader to sit in a classroom on such a lovely day, but he has already learned a lesson about obligations that will still resonate 50 years from now: cowboys are not the only ones whose work is never done.

Grandpa in the Sky

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(Pictured: in 2006, Jack Black played King Herod in a one-off performance of Jesus Christ Superstar, which is just the greatest thing ever.)

Imagine if you will, or remember if you can, one of those indestructible portable turntables, with a lid that opened like a suitcase, a thick metal tonearm, a stylus not unlike a drywall nail, and a speaker that was made for volume rather than fidelity. Now imagine it blasting Jesus Christ Superstar, echoing through a church sanctuary or fellowship hall. Imagine further a group of concerned adults listening carefully, perhaps following along from lyrics typed up and mimeographed by the church secretary. As they listen, they ask themselves: is this blasphemous? Or are the kids are saying something worth hearing?

Superstar was supposed to be a stage musical, but Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice couldn’t get the money together, so it was released as a concept album in 1970. An authorized, one-time stage production was mounted after the album became a giant hit, but the copyright owners spent the summer of 1971 shutting down unauthorized productions before it officially opened on Broadway that October.

Superstar brought religion into pop culture in a big new way, but I wonder if that would have happened without the collapse of the hippie dream of the 1960s. When it became clear that bomber jet planes were not going to turn into butterflies, the kids looked for alternatives to revolution as a source of hope or meaning, and many of them got religion. But their religion couldn’t be harsh or legalistic, and require congregants to wear a necktie or a dress; it had to be accessible. (Did your church hire its first “youth pastor” about this time? Mine did.) Your relationship with God wasn’t going to be something you experienced intellectually as much as something you felt. There has always been a strong strain of emotionalism in American religion—the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries, the holy rollers of the rural South, and Black churches, to name a few—but the middle-class, whitebread Protestant denominations of the mid-20th century had largely avoided it. But personal, feel-it-in-your-heart religiosity eventually infiltrated those bastions too.

At some point around 1972, several members of our middle-class whitebread Protestant church got into the whole charismatic revival thing. My parents stayed on the fringes of it, although they went to some of the meetings, and for a time, they watched televised services from a charismatic church, with people in the throes of religious ecstasy speaking in tongues. It was in this period that I read The Late Great Planet Earth and learned about the Rapture, with believers taken bodily into Heaven and sinners Left Behind. The latter had such a hold on my imagination that whenever the house would get quiet, I would wonder if the Rapture had happened.

I always just assumed I was getting Left Behind.

Eventually, our church sponsored an entire revival week. (I would like to know precisely how this happened, for it does not seem like something that our dignified whitebread senior pastors would have cottoned to.) There were services for all and breakout sessions for adults and youth, and I went for the whole week, toting a copy of The Living Bible. The speakers were not members of our church; they came from elsewhere. One young woman, celestial light gleaming in her eyes, told a group of 12-year-olds that she thought it would be cool to die, because then she would get to see what Heaven is like. Which seemed, even to 12-year-old me, like missing the entire point of living. No wonder I was getting Left Behind.

(It’s not correct to say that the experience made me an atheist; I remained at least nominally a believer until I was almost 40. But I have never forgotten the moment, or the bent worldview it expressed.)

The pop religiosity of the 1970s was new at the time, but today, it’s pervaded religion at every level. For most believers, God is no longer a celestial thunderer passing out judgment as much as he is a kindly grandpa in the sky. Even followers of Republican Jesus, for all their legalistic interpretations of the Old Testament and their desire to see God wreak punishment on their enemies, base their belief on a personal relationship with him. Smarter people than I could tell you for sure, but I see the origins of it in Superstar and the religious revivals of the 1970s.

Third-Shift Pub Crawl

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(Pictured: Pabst Blue Ribbon is no longer brewed in Milwaukee, but some of the downtown brewery complex has been preserved. Part of it has been converted to a visitor center with a hotel, where The Mrs. and I stayed on a visit last year. Do not sleep on PBR itself; during our visit, I drank some for the first time in years and enjoyed it immensely.)

The muse has been a little stingy with inspiration recently, so here’s an old reliable fallback: a tour of some stuff that has passed through my Twitter feed recently.

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