A while back, a journalist friend asked if I'd make a point of listening to radio. He wanted to do a piece on radio in the twenty-first century, and up-to-date sources are always helpful. That was some time ago. He hasn't got around to the piece. I, however, have listened to an awful lot of music radio, with a gimlet ear.
What I didn't hear shocked me. Times change, and I was eager to hear a new and different radio. There wasn't much happening. I didn't expect the depth of the abyss or its emptiness.
Forty years ago, Newton Minnow, then head of the US Federal Communication Commission, called television a "vast wasteland." I thought his denunciation was unfair for what, at the time, was a relatively new industry. Only after World War Two were enough television stations licenced to allow a creative production environment to flourish.
Radio has an eighty-three year history, and there have been two extended eras of excellence, one as a national medium, the other as a local medium. Expectations of a third wave of excellence were not out of line. To listen and find a wasteland, across the dial, surprised me.
Studio musicians often walk through the charts they're playing and go home. The tracks they lay down are technically good—perfect, usually—but passionless. Such was the sound of radio, perfunctory, but far from perfect.
The radio I heard lacked energy, passion and commitment. Save for a very few, there wasn't much emotion. Time, traffic and temperature were pervasive. Once upon a time, a "three-t" jock, as in disc jockey, was a service provider, a live voice to fill off-hours. The service provider is now ubiquitous.
Jocks, today, seem to meander through shifts, lifers, putting in time. Everything seems to take energy, not create it. "Hey, mom, I'm on the radio," and boring. Maybe playing music that came and went before you were born. there was almost no new music on radio can't be made interesting or be fun. Could I have found a way to make playing Percy Faith fun when I was twenty? If I couldn't, ten thousand could and did.
Maybe it's time to dust off some oldsters. Old jocks never die, their volume just needs adjusting. A generation ago, lot of quality radio artists left for greener pastures. Many are itching to return. Dan Nevereth returned, successfully, and rumour is Bill Gable will be back, shortly. Once you've mainlined radio as art, you're forever hooked.
No energy and no passion make commitment unlikely. My sense is the jocks I heard would accept a job in retail, if it paid better. Many do. Nothing suggested radio was a priority. Some might even work the hospitality industry or on a used car lot. They'd surely be successful as long as it didn't call for energy or passion. A lot of the voices I heard are likely celibate.
Yes, the egos would stay. Once upon a time, there was a young jock, Jerry Blavat, working WCAM,-AM a thousand Watt station in Camden, New Jersey. He billed himself as the "Geater with the Heater." (Don't ask.) WCAM reputedly paid Jerry thirty dollars a week, but he made $135,000 a year. He knew how to parley his station job into hard currency. At one point, thousands of Jerry Blavats were working radio. Egos would pull their shift for nothing, if necessary, and it didn't affect their energy, passion, creativity, commitment or income.
There was a time when radio was performance art. Listeners tuned to jocks for entertainment and inspiration. As Carl de Suze, the Boston AM Drive legend, told me in an interview, many years ago, jocks "sold the music, we didn't rely on it to attract attention; we made sure listeners tuned in to hear us." Time, traffic and temperature were necessary evils.
In four or five hour shifts, jocks burst with infectious energy. They were passionate about radio and, sometimes, about music, too. Then there were the Brian Murphys, who were doubly passionate about the music and high on radio. Passion was the point.
Mostly, jocks were uber-passionate about radio. They lived radio. Many married it. One fellow I worked with had a studio set up in his living room so he could practice, practice, practice. His wife is with him to this day. Tolerance seems to know few limits.
Above all, these jocks were committed to exhausting all the possibilities radio had to offer, and then finding some more. Their passion was so great, uber-energy was a given. Their art was addictive for listener and creator, alike.
In those days, you'd con the car keys from dad. Dial the radio to WKBW, WABC, WBZ or CKLW. Pick up your girl, go watch the submarine races and listen to the radio.
On 'KB, Joey Reynolds played the same record for four straight hours and taunted competitor, Jackson Armstrong. From the reverberation chamber that was WABC, the energy of "Cousin Brucie" wired you to the nines and imbued a sense of invincibility. Bruce Bradley, on WBZ, premiered "Rubber Soul"—a must for boomers in the fall of '65. CKLW delivered the Motown wall of sound; what a thrill were those nights when the weather was just right and "The Big Eight" bounced into town. These were princes of the universe, one and all.
Dick Summer is one example of non-frenetic synergy. Night in, night out, on WBZ, WNEW and WNBC, he was calmly creative, passionate and totally committed. On WBZ, there were long, intense and interesting conversations with Rod McKuen, the best selling poet of all time or comic Sandy Baron. Dick would read poetry to the music of the day; "The Highwayman" to the beat of "Flute Thing," is the one I recall most vividly. He was one of the first to play "Sound of Silence," understand it and convey his understanding to listeners. Couldn't wait for midnight, to hear what gifts Dick Summer would bring for listeners. When he moved to WNBC, after a spell doing "Milkman's Matinee," on WNEW, New York, Dick had at least one long, truly intelligent conversation with a woman from "Penthouse." It was so intimate, without a hint of anything untoward. Most, I suspect, would've talked down to her and played up the "soft porn" angle, but not Dick Summer. "Dignity, class and integrity," is the way Carl de Suze described Dick, and this was a prime example. This was clam, synergistic radio that made you want to listen, not for the music, but for the jock.
Listeners were loyal, in those days. Favourite jocks were local heroes. One time, three jocks from CKLW were in the audience at the "Rooster Tail," the Detroit show place for Motown. Until the emcee introduced them, tension ran high. After the introduction, they were among five thousand of their very best and dearest friends, their listeners.
Jocks set the agenda of conversation. "Hey, did you hear what Pascal did during 'The Final Hour,' last night?" Speculating what he might do next was exciting. Is there really someone named "Susie Creamcheese"? Did she really %$#@-up in Europe? Tens of thousands listened to find out, every night. Few were aware of Frank Zappa and thus not in the loop. That station, now, is a shallow shadow of its former greatness.
We were never bored because radio was never boring. Jocks were on their toes and kept reaching. They could hear for miles and miles and miles, and never rested on their laurels.
What happened? The answer is simple. Non-creatives wrenched control from the creatives. The same approach has overwhelmed movies, music and recording over the past dozen or so years. When bottom lines become more important than art, the art withers. Then the profits began drying up. Bean counters seldom comprehend that art and authenticity equal profits.
The artistic temperament is volatile and talent is fragile. Artistry begets peccadilloes. Many great radio artists were philandering, irreverent slobs. Advertisers are seldom comfortable with creatives, as Stan Freeberg can attest. So, replace artists with parrots that repeat time, traffic and temperature and decrease the possibility of offending. Contracts to buy time, moreover, are black and white, legally binding, easier to manage and don't talk back.
What made radio artistic? Answering that question is difficult. To lift a line from John Sebastian, "it's like trying to tell a stranger about rock 'n' roll." You must hear it and when you do, you'll know it.
Radio as art is a sensation. You feel it much the way you sense a loving touch. It compels your attention, like nothing else. When radio is art, everything is in sync, working as a well oiled, if complicated, Swiss watch.
"Hitting the vocal" is a part of radio art. Done well, it's astounding. In concept, it's simple, talk over the instrumental introduction of a record until the vocal begins. In real life, the pressure of running a high-octane show, with a heavy spot load, makes hitting vocal extremely difficult. If you step on the vocal, you're an amateur. What must happen is the vocal begins in lockstep with the cadence of the jock, on a natural breath pause. Most artful is having the vocal finish your thought. Hitting the vocal is easy to write or think about and entertaining to hear, but extremely difficult to pull off.
David Hayes, who writes for "The Walrus," a monthly magazine, relays a story about the legendary Bill Gable, when he was at CKLW, in Windsor. "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" was a big hit, at the time, and thus played often. The instrumental introduction to "Papa ...." is one minute and thirty-three seconds long. Even the best jocks let this one go, but not Gable. One shift, as co-workers watched in awe, Gable talked, on topic, for the full ninety-three seconds, letting the first line of vocal finished his thought on a natural pause in his vocal rhythm. It was the third of September, a day I'll always remember, yes I will." To lift a line from Steven Tyler, of Aerosmith, "Holy shit!" Gable claims to recall little of the event. All in a day's shift, I suspect, is his thinking. Still, it's radio history, a sound monument to the possible. This was radio performance art at its very, very best. Who, today, would imagine such a thing? Most would deign to try.
When parts combine to produce results that exceed reasonable expectations, when you get much more than you thought you would, you have synergy. Radio art is a synergy of energy, passion and commitment, always more than imaginable. It inspires jock and listener to reach for the highest levels of possibility. It's an inspiration like no other. Can we do better? Can we do it a little different? Each shift was synergistic.
In 1965, a fellow named Yarborough used the name Drake. He devised a radio format that synchronized frequent repetition of a brief play list with audience turnover. The goal was to optimize profits. The faster the audience turned over, the greater the profits. When a listener heard a record for the second time, it was their cue to move on. As all great notions, the Drake Format was simple in concept.
Drake required jocks stick to strict time restrictions. Slogans and the three-tees were about all most jocks could slip between commercial islands and records. Alliteration was common. Los Angeles became "Boss Angelus," with the vowels extended all the way to San Jose. The news was tabloidish, "Fantic father fries four," was the lead about a stressed-out parent who burned his home, while his children slept inside. It's a disgusting headline, if you're fifty-six, but one that made you a strutting bad-boy newsroom star, if you worked the Drake format.
When the format premiered on KHJ, in Los Angeles, inflammatory criticism was immediate. It was the Armageddon of radio! Who would or could listen to such repetitive and tightly structured radio? At some point, the uber-cocky Drake must have wanted to crawl into a hole. The negativity was relentless. In the end, it turned out to be format-envy.
In no time, KHJ was number one in Boss Angeles. Drake imitators popped up everywhere. WRKO, in Boston, was an especially authentic version. The format was profitable, and audiences liked it. The boomers tuned to the Drake format, everywhere, and stayed with it.
Drake was an easy target. Many thought the format dehumanized radio. In other words, it removed the performance art from radio. Drake did just the opposite. It opened-up possibilities for radio art. Seldom are things what you first think.
Drake was more flexible than believed. Robert W. Morgan and Charlie Tuna, among others, could break format with impunity, and did. Their brand of radio art made money, listeners loved them and they didn't detract from the overall approach. It was the best of all worlds.
The Drake-jock forged new paths of creativity. "The Real" Don Steele typified the artistry made possible by Drake. Steele had a spontaneous, quicksilver intelligence, a mischievous sense of humour, an appreciation of the ridiculous and an uncanny capacity for intense concentration, if only in bursts of twenty seconds. Hitting vocal was a mere trifle for Steele. He could jam more information into a few seconds than an ordinary person could convey in an hour.
During one PM Drive shift, Steele had twenty seconds to hit vocal out of a commercial, but had to do a weather report and play a jingle along the way. He had little room to inject any hint of personality, but did. Coming out of the commercial, he banners, "LA weather," then comes the flood: "Clouds and FOOGGGG!!!, along the coast, tonight. Hazy-sunshine-of-your-loving-life SMOG, tomorrow ... in the mid-70s downtown and Orange Country. Low's near 55 ... up to 83 in the Valley. Low tonight 55. Downtown ... now 73 and currently, here in Hollywood, 76 deee-greeeees." And a four second jingle into vocal. Whew! You must hear it to sense the drama, and it's just a weather report.
Day in and day out, Steele infused the mundane with high drama. Take a deep breath and duplicate his sixteen-second weather report. Now, try to make it interesting, with personality, and create drama. It's draining just to listen to this forty-year-old clip. Steele is to radio what van Gogh is to painting.
Don Imus is one of the remaining radio artists. These days, he mostly comments and interviews. In his early years, he was more a jock. Iain "Brother" Barrie once schmoozed Jack Thayer, then manger of WNBC, into sending him a random one-hour line check of Imus. If the hour was random, and there's no reason to believe it wasn't, Imus was and is the Leonardo da Vinci of radio art.
The Imus air check is so jam packed, an adequate summary is impossible. There are commercials, some music, time and temperature, and sports. Banter among jock, news anchor, Chuck McCord, and a sportscaster presage the "Imus in the Morning" of today. There is an Imus bedtime story and few other bits that, pure and simple, are outstanding radio art.
A few years ago, a bunch of my Social Psychology students cajoled me into playing the Imus tape for them. Since these students were born long after the show aired, and were as cynical as most twenty-somethings, I figured a polite chuckle here and there was all I could expect. Was I wrong? To a one, they thought it was a hoot, and second time through decided it was amazing art. And there was no shining on my part. As do all great works, radio art stands the test of time; its appeal is timeless.
In our irreverent twenties, "Brother" Barrie and I mused that stations would likely continue to roll line checks of Carl de Suze, Rick Steele and B. Mitchell Reed, among many others, long after they had passed. Radio art is that enduring. Now, I've just given some hapless programmer an idea.
Maybe some jock, somewhere, is doing radio art, today. I doubt it. I searched and searched. What I heard was bland, at best. Some talkers were good at faking the energy, emotion and commitment, jocks weren't. Ronn Owen, on KGO=AM, and David Brudnoy, on WBZ-AM, are stellar, synergistic talkers. Otherwise, there wasn't much to hear: a lot of time, traffic and temperature presented in a straight-ahead way.
There's nothing wrong with a straight-ahead approach. Chuck Leonard and Jon L'Heuri were straight-ahead jocks. Their popularity derived from an inherent likability, conveyed vocally and recognized by listeners. They were never boring, even when reading some of the worst radio copy ever written. Synergy takes many forms.
Most often, today, straight-ahead jocks lack conviction, leaving listeners wishing and hoping for something, anything, more. Creatively packaging tiresome, repetitive content seems antithetical to radio, today.
Listeners generally accept what radio gives them. Once upon a time, listeners got daily gifts that were "imagineered," to lift a phrase from Stan Freeberg. Radio artists busted their behinds to be creative, energetic, passionate, likable and visionary. Their synergy conveyed respect for listeners. Today, well, I just wonder. Few seem up to the task or interested.
The woes of the music business are similar. There isn't much viable new product. Levels of creativity, energy, passion and vision are at rock bottom. For the music business, hope is on the horizon. Leading the way to a stable recovery are Damien Rice, Norah Jones, Jamie Cullum, Joan Osborne, and, of course, the common sense commentary of Bob Lefsetz.
Traffic is light and there's no construction blocking the road to the recovery for radio. The most successful stations I worked or consulted were firmly in the hands of creatives, men and women who'd come up the programming ranks, as did Jack Thayer and Chuck Azzarello, and knew radio as an art form, not merely as temporal inventory to be moved, as fast as possible. It's time to wrest control from the bean counters and return it to the creatives, the rightful heart and soul of the medium, and those who can facilitate them.
Ring-tones are poised to capture the music-audience radio once relied on. The corporations that control ring-tones also own lots of radio stations, and prefer easy profits. An "all-traffic reports, all the time," format is poised take over, sooner than later.
There's definitely a place for an all traffic format. As cities grow more populous, the format becomes necessary. The point is that it grossly under-utilizes the capacity of radio to provide creative, interesting and entertaining art. Listeners deserve the full spectrum of radio possibilities. Listeners deserve synergy. A political action committee to ensure fulfillment of the rights of listeners is required.
It is four o'clock in the morning, and raining, to homage John Landau, and 22 May, to boot. I'm 56, today, not feeling old for the first time in years. I'm listening to air checks, growing young and pondering how different radio was when we were fab. Thirty years ago, this day, Landau wrote he had seen "the future of rock and roll and its name is Bruce Springsteen." Lately, I've heard the future of radio and its name is the "all traffic report format." Now is the time to act for change.
This is no lament for times past. It's a call to renew the dynamic, artistic infrastructure of radio. A creative environment for jocks and radio to excite and compel listeners are fair goals. Tomorrow is the time for the third wave of radio excellence.
What medium or small market will take the chance to foster radio art? Where will next Jay Thomas, Doug Tracht ("The Greaseman"), Rick Peterson, Sonny Fox, Pat Holiday, Dale Dorman or Harry Harrison hone their art? Tell me! If some forward-looking station did shine the radio art, where would the artists go? Tell me! The shrinking number of major market station owners rolls back the need to take chances; bean counters like safe, if smaller, bottom lines. Do you believe WNBC would, today, have the nerve or need to hire Imus from WGAR-AM, Cleveland, as it did in 1970, and, again, from WHK-AM, Cleveland, in 1979? Deprived listeners tell us it's a resounding "no"!
The sheer thrill of creation is a drug worthy of addiction. Future generations of jocks deserve the option to know this octane high experience. Walking through shift after shift isn't a career or a life; it is not exhausting the possibilities of radio as art. Synergy is a good way to get a whole lot more out of career and life and help listeners do the same. Good deeds play forward.
Someone always captures radio art, and saves it for posterity. Aircheck-mania is more common than cine-mania. You can hear every radio artist of the past fifty years. Tom Konard is curator of the most complete archive of radio art available. Surf theaircheckfactory. Hear what went before. Imagine the sound of tomorrow.
Struggling painters learn from da Vinci and van Gogh. New radio artists learn and grow from the air checks of those who've gone before them. Here are a few suggestions to get you started: Larry Lujack, the uber-creative Gary Owens and Wolfman Jack, especially his nights on WNBC. Go listen! Go create. Be well and synergistic.
dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.
Click above to tell a friend about this article.