Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Rock and Roll Radio: Continuing my near-total avoidance of political blogging, this Will Collier post caught my eye. It's about a radio station from his youth.
But that wasn't what was really great about the station. TK had a personality, and it was unpredictable. The station was programmed by the in-house jocks, and you really never knew what you were going to hear next, particularly in the first half of the '80's. TK picked up on new acts in a hurry, and even played stuff like Cyndi Lauper and Duran Duran long before they were unavoidable on Top 40 stations (and like them or hate them, at that time they were still new and very different from the automated pop of the day). It was a station that could effortlessly go from Judas Priest to Bruce Cockburn to an old Journey tune, and then roll into an obscure live U2 track one of the jocks found on the back of a vinyl EP.
Worth reading the whole. I'll wait.


I know I sound like a fogey of the first water when I get into the "Back in my day . . ." groove, but so what. I had the pleasure to grow up under the influence of the storied WNEW in New York. The names are almost meaningless now: Ken Dashow, Scott Muni, Pete Fornatale, the departed Nightbird, Vin Scelsa -- and Dave Herman. I was painting houses across Northern New Jersey, and only Dave Herman's morning show kept me going. You knew that your shot of "Bruce Juice" in the morning would not be "Tenth Avenue Freezeout" or "Born to Run." More likely it would be a non-single, like "The E Street Shuffle" or the album cut of "Jungleland" (a ten-minute extravaganza that any normal station would fire a jock for playing), or something quirky like "Does this Bus Stop at 82nd Street?"

The format was undeniably classic rock, but not "Classic Rock." In one sitting, you might hear an oddball oldie like Del Shannon's "Hats off to Larry," a Beatles B-side like "I'm Down" or "Rain," live cuts, a new song by Los Lobos, a top-name in-studio guest, Black Sabbath, and "Things from England."

Things declined, as they do. In 1988, WNEW was sold to Westinghouse. Before long, the jocks had either left (like Vin Scelsa), found other outlets (like Richard Neer), or settled into an embarrassing irrelevancy (like when Scottso had his show cut down to a single hour). The program became musty, and the playlist became one stale "hit" after another. Forget "Jungleland" -- even something like "Hey, Jude" didn't fit the format anymore.

It was right about this time that I was fired from the small station where I was working, ostensibly for playing the entirety of Side A of Shirley McLaine's "Best of Broadway" album. But really, it was for playing things like Rush, Yes, Cream, AC/DC, Traffic, War, Jeff Beck, The Kinks, Zappa, Vanilla Fudge. Their heavy rotation bin included things like REM, 10,000 Maniacs, the Smiths, and other groups that were played on every one of the other shows the station had, except for the jazz show and the country show. And Nirvana. Man, I never got Nirvana.

The jocks that spun REM said that classic rock was stale and corporate. But REM was stale and corporate pretty quickly, too. ("Everybody Hurts," anyone?) Plus, they were throwing out the baby with the bathwater simply because no station would venture much further than "Stairway to Heaven."

Radio's best feature was always its variety, its mystery, the surprise of hearing a long-lost gem or something new and different. Alternative radio did this briefly, but soon the alternative stations all played the same songs, too. (And, honestly, how much Morrisey do you really want in your life?) A jock from a small local station admitted to me recently that his hands are tied. He doesn't get to pick anything, and prerecords a lot of his intro/outro work. And this is the local alternative/worldbeat/alt-country/singer-songwriter station that brags about being "different." God help you if you're at the Clear Channel affiliate.

So I've made my peace with radio. I listen mostly to talk, now. If I want music, I'll play a disc or occasionally scan stations. I looked at satellite, but my reaction was the same as Will's: "Where's the station that plays everything?" If the legalities ever get straightened out, eclectica podcasts might fill the niche. But the record companies seem to get more committed every day to the principle of locking music away.

Maybe it's too much to ask, but I want the A-Z history of rock and roll, from doo-wop to heavy metal . . . on shuffle.


Flyer said...

I caught that post from Will yesterday, too (good to see Vodkapundit up and running - I must have had the "down" page cached for an extra day). I commented to him that one of my buddy Steven, who I worked with in NO, used to sell ads for TK-101. He told stories that made it sound like heaven on a radio dial.

One story that I forgot to mention at Will's post - you know those 5 second or so slogan/announcements that lead in and out of commercials, the obviously pre-recorded ones, not DJ chatter? They're called "sweepers" and TK used to run one all the time that said, "TK-101, music the whole office can agree on. (pause) Well, our office anyway." I think that summed up the spirit of the station in its heyday.

Razor said...

What's funny is our kids will never know the purpose of a "DJ" (a disc [compact disc] barely registering with them, much less a *gasp* vinyl one). The purpose of a DJ was not to spin records, but to expose you to his/her style. So that you could listen to his/her "show" knowing that you were going to get either great variety or a constant theme; radio history or up-to-date hits; amusing commentary or abrasive criticism.

The point was that you were listening to a personality, not a station. That doesn't exist even a little anymore. Hell, most DJs (for the stations that use them at all) aren't even sitting at the station you're listening to -- they're in a booth at corporate, pretending to be giving you the local flavor when they probably can't even name they mayor.

My defining memory was when WPLJ went from rock to suck-ass Top 40. That must have been 1985 or 1986. I remember being viscerally upset by that move for quite a long time, as the DJs I knew and loved were replaced by idiotic people with funny voices.

WNEW was the last hold-out. Now, a station will change its "identity" once every three years. We had one here in Phildelphia, 103.9, which in the mid-90s was a pretty cool "alternative" (back when that word had a vestige of a meaning) station, that got bought out and went rap, then soft listening, now I don't even know. I remember actually being sad when the station had a going away party on-air, on the last day....chanting its call sign as the clock ticked to midnight.