Top 5: The Key Men Open the Door

My first paying radio gig was at KDTH in Dubuque, Iowa, beginning in 1979. Across town, our competitor was WDBQ. I had some college friends who worked there, and sometimes, I secretly wished I did too—while KDTH was a full-service station that played mostly country music, WDBQ was a Top-40 station.

By 1979, the morning, midday, and afternoon guys had all been there a long time. The morning guy was not a rock fan, so almost everything rock-oriented was dayparted out of his show. (That he later put a classic-rock format on a station he bought surprised practically everybody who remembered him.) The midday guy always “looked in the ol’ lunch box” each day at noon, describing what he’d packed for that day. He also regularly promoted that he was going to do this, several times a day. The afternoon guy had the slick pipes of an old-school Top 40 guy. The night guy was younger, hipper, and generally more in tune with the audience, as night guys had to be. The overnight jock was a woman with a cool, sexy vibe, who eventually crossed the street to KDTH, where her husband worked.

Because the part-time staff was made up mostly of my friends, I hung out there sometimes, although I suspect WDBQ’s management would have been less than thrilled by that. The WDBQ studio seemed to have an energy that KDTH lacked. They were still playing 45s, while all of our music was on tape cartridges. In retrospect, the coolest thing at WDBQ was that all of their jingles and records were labeled by key, and jocks chose jingles based on the key of the record they were jingling into. (I wonder how widespread a practice this was in the biz back then.)

All of this is prelude to discussing a survey from WDBQ dated July 5, 1968, with its slogan, “Let the key men of music open the door to good listening to you.” The slogan is a bit less of a nonsequitur when you know that Dubuque used to call itself the Key City, but its lack of sizzle remains remarkable.

1. “Indian Lake”/Cowsills (up from 3). When I ring changes on the glory of bubblegum, I am forever forgetting the Cowsills, which I should not do, given “The Rain, the Park, and Other Things,” and this.

5. “Can’t You See Me Cry/New Colony Six (up from 8) and 9. “Young Birds Fly”/Cryan Shames (up from 10). Plenty of Midwestern flavor on this survey with these two Chicago-area favorites. Whatever the New Colony Six did was big in the Midwest (like “Can’t You See Me Cry,” which did only #52 in Billboard), and how they missed being massive national stars in the late 60s I do not know. I’m not quite as impressed with either the Cryan Shames or “Young Birds Fly” (#99 in Billboard), but the record must have sounded great on the radio back then.

14. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”/Rolling Stones (up from 24). Seems rather out of place compared to the rest of the stuff on this survey. In addition to being the hardest-rockin’ record by a mile, it’s also the blackest, although in the station’s defense, there was precious little R&B topping the pop charts at that moment. Another odd omission from this survey: “Mac Arthur Park,” although it had already begun its descent on the national charts, so maybe it was already gone from WDBQ’s regular list.

Discoveries (bottom of chart): “The Land Where Animals Are People”/Legard Brothers. This act is properly billed as the Brothers Legard, country-singing twins from Australia who became TV stars Down Under in the 1960s and even appeared in an episode of Star Trek in the States. “The Land Where Animals Are People,” a Jimmie Haskell production, is a bit of sunshine pop just trippy enough to appeal to the kids but not so psychedelic that it would put off their parents.

So it was probably OK for mornings on WDBQ.

Top 5: Kinda Tasty

About this time of year in 1979, I wrapped up my freshman year in college. It had been an eventful year, as freshman years tend to be. I had made my radio debut on the college station the previous December and snagged a paying job at KDTH in Dubuque in April. The best thing about that radio job was that it meant I wouldn’t have to get a job doing something else for the summer—I could do the only thing I had wanted to do since I was 11 years old.

So my education continued that summer, not only inside the radio station’s building but outside of it as well. I lived an hour from Dubuque, so when I had to work both days of the weekend, I stayed Saturday nights with a couple of older guys I knew from school, both of whom were working radio jobs too. We spent hours talking about radio (and other things), and I learned a lot by observation and osmosis.

But in the middle of May, that was in the future. As final exams wrapped up and I bid most of my friends goodbye until August, here are some of the songs that were on the radio. I went to school in southwestern Wisconsin; the survey for the week of May 20, 1979, is from KORL in Honolulu, just because.

2. “Woman in Love”/Three Degrees (holding at 2). OK, “Woman in Love” wasn’t on the radio in Wisconsin that spring, but it probably should have been. It missed the Hot 100 altogether, but scraped onto the R&B and adult contemporary charts and went to Number 3 in the UK.

9. “Oh Honey”/Delegation (down from 7). This record had been off the Hot 100 for a month after peaking at Number 45, although it went to Number 6 on the R&B chart, and it was still doing big business in Hawaii. When I first got to KDTH in the spring of 1979, the station had yet to fully embrace a country identity, and still played a lot of adult pop including, briefly, “Oh Honey.” It’s kinda tasty, actually.

This post continues on the flip with more toonage via vintage video.

Continue reading “Top 5: Kinda Tasty”

Top 5: All Our Tomorrows

On Valentine’s weekend in 1982, I had an engagement ring burning a hole in my pocket.

It hadn’t cost very much—in fact I can remember the guy at the jewelry store cracking wise about how little I was paying for it—but I had spent as much as I could justify, making $185 a week with no credit card and almost nothing in the bank. She had been expecting a ring for a while. When she didn’t get it at Christmas or her birthday, she figured Valentine’s Day was the next likely date. That was my plan, too. She was coming over to spend the weekend with me in my new place, and I thought that I would give the ring to her on Valentine’s Day, which was Sunday. When she arrived on Friday night, she brought a few housewarming gifts, odds and ends, things I’d said I needed in the new place, and I suddenly decided I couldn’t wait until Sunday. So on Friday night, in the living room of my crappy furnished apartment, I whipped out the ring and proposed to her.

She said yes.

I was a little baby disc jockey only a couple of weeks into my first full-time radio job at KDTH in Dubuque. My responsibilities also included the care and feeding of the automation system for D93, the FM Top-40 station. And on the Cash Box chart dated February 13, 1982, were a lot of  the songs D93 was playing, a few that were heard on KDTH, and a few I wouldn’t discover until years later. The stuff as the top is either burned out from years of exposure or was rather undistinguished to begin with, but there’s more interesting stuff further down.

14. “Waiting on a Friend”/Rolling Stones (holding at 14). A song with a remarkable history, the instrumental track for “Waiting on a Friend” was born in 1970, and the Stones tried recording it on the sessions that resulted in the 1973 album Goats Head Soup. It sat in the can for seven years, until the band’s co-producer started scouting for songs to go on Tattoo You. Mick Jagger wrote lyrics for it, and the band rounded up jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins for a solo. But some of what we hear is that original instrumental track from years before, including Mick Taylor on guitar.

20. “Through the Years”/Kenny Rogers (up from 23). I’d never been much of a Kenny Rogers fan. His late 70s material sounded cheap and tossed off, so I welcomed the craftsmanship I heard in his collaborations with Lionel Richie as producer. “Through the Years” doesn’t sound much different from anything else he’d done, at least not until about two minutes into the record. At that point, he starts singing with a conviction I’d never heard before—and then, at about 3:25 in, he goes up and gets a beautiful high note and proceeds to sing the hell out of the rest of the song. It blew me out of the chair in the radio studio the first time I heard it. This is the only Kenny Rogers record you need.

32. “All Our Tomorrows”/Eddie Schwartz. (holding at 32). D93 played a lot of records of dubious value in hopes of being among the first stations in the country to break a new hit. We probably played “All Our Tomorrows” more than any station outside of Schwartz’s native Canada, but it was worth the attention.

36. “Trouble”/Lindsey Buckingham (down from 22). In which Buckingham’s gift for massive hooks, which had served Fleetwood Mac so well since 1976, is deployed on his own behalf. If “Trouble” lasted 10 minutes, I’d listen to every second.

60. “Do You Believe in Love”/Huey Lewis and the News (up from 83). If you remember the winter of 1982, you remember that the country was deep in a recession. In Dubuque, a factory town tied to the cratering farm economy, times were especially hard. But there was something encouraging about the tight, radio-ready sound of this new band. As long as you believed in love, they seemed to be saying, you’d be OK.  For a young couple pledging their troth in that season, the answer to “Do You Believe in Love” was an emphatic yes.

“All Our Tomorrows”/Eddie Schwartz (This and other songs by Schwartz are back in print on a new compilation that includes his demo of the Pat Benatar song “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” which he wrote. As a result, this song will be up only over the weekend. Buy the album here.)

Sunday at the Memories

At my first paying radio gig, in Dubuque over 30 years ago, I worked Sundays from noon to 6. There was a lengthy noon newscast to engineer and a public affairs program to play (“The KDTH Voice in Dubuque” with Gordon Kilgore), but my main job was to run a syndicated program called Sunday at the Memories. It was a nostalgia show featuring music, oldtime radio clips, and other broadcasting ephemera hosted by a veteran Denver jock named Ray Durkee. When I first started running the show, it focused mainly on music from maybe 1945 to 1965, although as time passed, the focus moved forward. One of my favorite moments in broadcasting happened after Sunday at the Memories had moved to a Sunday morning slot, when Ray opened the show with Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild.” Five thousand watts of biker rock on staid old KDTH, and at 9:00 on a Sunday morning, was a beautiful thing to me. By the time I stopped hearing the show regularly in the mid 80s, Ray was playing Tom Petty and even Madonna—an uneasy mix with the other nostalgia elements, to be sure.

I met Ray, who died last summer at age 70, when KDTH brought him to Dubuque to MC a listener party and do his show live from our studios the next day. He never knew it, but he was indirectly responsible for getting me fired for industrial espionage. The supposed “meeting in Dubuque,” which made the idiots who employed me in Illinois think I was conniving to steal their corporate secrets, was actually a second listener party, which I’d gone back to attend. (It was, against all odds, such a rager that it was worth getting fired over.)

Later in my career, when I became a program director, I didn’t have to work Sunday mornings anymore, not exactly, although the nature of the program director’s gig is that you’re on call for emergencies 24/7. At WKAI, we hired a new guy to work Sunday mornings, and he was a little shaky on the equipment. His first Sunday soloing, my telephone rang at 5:45, and the conversation went something like this:

Me (groggily): “Hello?”
Bob: “Jim?”
Me: “Yeah.”
Bob: “It’s Bob.”
Me: “Yeah.”
Bob: “At the station?”
Me: “What’s up?”
Bob: “I can’t get the transmitter on.”

After a brief pause, because I wasn’t awake quite enough to process a complete sentence, I ran him through the checklist for getting the transmitter on. “I did that,” he said. “I did that. I did that.” At this point, I dragged myself out of bed and turned on my own stereo, where I could hear the dead carrier wave and see the little stereo light ablaze. “It’s on, Bob.” “Really? OK, thanks,” he said. It was no big deal. I had told him to call if he had any problems, and I was half-expecting it.

The next Sunday morning, however, he called again with the same problem. And so we ran the checklist again. During the week, I got in touch with Bob to make sure he understood what he was doing on Sundays—and then I’ll be damned if he didn’t call me a third Sunday in a row. So the following week, I took precautions. I didn’t want to unplug the phone entirely, so we turned off the one in the bedroom and buried the main extension underneath the couch cushions so there was no way for us to hear it. I don’t know if he called or not, but when we got up at a more civilized hour, the station was on, and all was well that ended well.

I did a regular Sunday morning airshift as recently as 2008. Just as there’s something special about being alone in the station at night, Sunday mornings have a particular vibe as well, although it’s difficult for me to describe it. It’s an incipient sense of possibility, maybe—the promise of a whole day with which we can do whatever we like, even if it’s nothing at all. As busy as we are, we don’t get many of them.

Top 5: Cats Lost and Found

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. 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 this:

KFRC Petline
Call day or night
If you have lost your pet or found someone else’s animal friend, we will try to help.

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 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 the iceberg. Thirty years ago (!), when I was at KDTH in Dubuque, 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). Chicken barbecues, church bazaars, boy-scout fundraisers, craft shows—if you sent us the details, we’d put the announcement into the rotation.

I don’t know why the community-calendar/lost-animal PSA fell by the wayside, but by the mid-80s, it had. I don’t remember reading many of them after Dubuque, but I also don’t remember why we stopped. 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 made us sound 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.

Here are five songs you would have heard between the lost-pet bulletins on KFRC in late August of 1972:

7. “You’re Still a Young Man”/Tower of Power (down from 5). “You’re Still a Young Man” was the first hit single for the Bay Area’s kick-ass horn band. In an era when Chicago was still big and BS&T not long gone, the failure of Tower of Power to make a greater national impact is hard to figure.

8. “My Ding-a-Ling”/Chuck Berry (debut). The biggest hit of Berry’s career, and exactly the same shame it would be if the Beatles’ “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” were better remembered than “Yesterday.”

12. “Baby Let Me Take You”/Detroit Emeralds (up from 18). On the radio, the little guitar figure that starts this record sounded great out of a jingle. I blogged about the Detroit Emeralds here a couple of years ago; you can hear “Baby Let Me Take You” here.

23. “Motorcycle Mama”/Sailcat (up from 25). One of those hippies-on-the-road songs that once were everywhere, like hippies on the road themselves. Here they are performing it on American Bandstand and talking with Dick Clark. The video quality is awful, but you’ll get the idea.

NEW. “Dinah Flo”/Boz Scaggs. Another Bay-Area musician gets on Bay-Area radio. Boz has been around longer than most people think. He was on his fourth album in 1972, and was still four years removed from Silk Degrees—although “Dinah Flo” would have fit nicely on that album.