Segarini: Theatre of the Mindless

Since the age of two, I have had a love affair with radio. Growing up an only child (adopted at that), it was my constant companion. Almost every waking moment of my day was filled with music, friendly voices that both entertained and informed me, and a feeling of community. I belonged to this amazing club, a cult of pop culture and secrets, shared by friends and strangers alike. We were legion, we were acknowledged, and we were unified in our love of music and the voices who presented it to us, educated us about it, and understood our need for both familiar artists and songs, and the thrill of hearing that which we had never heard before. We loved radio. We still do. But radio no longer loves us.

Please click on the links in this column. You will be rewarded with some interesting and entertaining content. 

Radio wasn’t always dependent on music for its content. I was lucky enough to be able to hear radio when it was the only way you could get entertainment in your home, period. Yes, music was a huge part of it when I was very young, but I was fortunate to catch the tail-end of what had made it great in the first place. Besides being able to bring us news far faster than the newspapers and magazines of the day, radio also provided companionship, drama, and comedy in abundance, Radio’s major content became known as ‘Theatre of the Mind’, and that is exactly what it was. Before television invaded our living rooms, people used their imaginations to become immersed in the stories that magically appeared out of the big box in the living room or the small one on the night stand. We built our own sets, designed our own art direction, created our own actors, and provided our own special effects. Without leaving our homes, we could travel the world, enjoy thrilling adventures, and laugh ourselves silly every single day of the week.

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The Jack Benny Show : Was there ever a funnier man than Jack Benny? Although he eventually owned television and had a slew of hit movies, Benny’s persona and a raft of wonderfully written foils portrayed by some of the best actors in existence allowed him to be the straight man on his own show, graciously giving the best laughs to his cohorts and infusing the shows with such an array of soon recognizable characters, that the comedy became character driven and not dependent on cheap gags.

Here’s Benny explaining some of the history from this ‘golden age’ of radio, and teaches us the fundamentals of using our imaginations. Golden Radio Part One

Even the movie stars of the day were eager to have radio shows. Here’s one of the funniest. A bit wacky, but it set the tone for television sit-coms good and bad, for generations to come. The Bickersons

There were myriad drama shows on the radio as well. Unlike audio books, there was a whole lot more included than just a narrator or a few actors. Most had their own orchestras in the studio, which also boasted live audiences. Some, like this western adventure show, used recordings, but when it came to the sound effects, they did them live. The ingenuity and creativity here is boundless. From 1938: Sound Effects: Back of the Mic

Here are the first three episodes of a Superman radio serial. To hear the whole story, just click on the ’37 videos’ button illustrated here, above the video on You Tube. It will take you to the remaining episodes

Superman vs The Clan Part One

Superman vs The Clan Part Two

Superman vs The Clan Part Three

The amazing thing about this Superman serial is its purpose. Most of the shows dealt with the usual assortment of criminals, mad scientists, and giant robots and rescuing Lois Lane from all of them, but occasionally, they would run a series for kids dealing with some pretty heavy issues. This one tries to teach the gang about the evils of bigotry. Supes doesn’t even show up until the 4th or fifth episode, but Clark and Jimmy Olsen are here from the get-go. Jeepers! Does today’s radio even acknowledge their youthful audience as such?

There were detective shows like Richard Diamond – Private Detective and a pant load of suspense, horror, and science fiction programs, and entertainment of all shapes and stripe. One episode of a show called the Mercury Theatre, had such an impact on the public that radio suddenly found itself with a couple of new rules and regulations it hadn’t been saddled with before. A 23 year old Broadway whiz kid was responsible for proving that radio was more than just a voice in the night. It was a very powerful voice. There was a great story about that broadcast, containing a wicked quote from Algonquin Roundtable veteran Alexander Woolcott, and a rare appearance and the voice of the author of War of the Worlds, H.G Wells, but sadly, it has been deleted from YouTube. Not only was this broadcast the most important one as far as its effect on radio was, it was the biggest hoax ever perpetrated by the media on the American public with the exception of two Presidents named Bush and one named Reagan. For those of you who have never heard it, here’s the entire broadcast. It was because of this program that Wells got a sponsor (Campbell Soup) for the Mercury Theatre and a contract with RKO pictures, where he made a film some of you may remember…Citizen Kane.

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Up until the mid ‘30s, music on the radio was performed live. There was a lot of musical content in the popular radio variety shows of the day, but the orchestras and some of the singers were employed by the radio stations, playing live over the air whenever there was a musical number. There was also a live audience, and radio station studios were beautifully built auditoriums where you could be a part of the audience and experience the magic of the theatre of the mind first hand. Recorded music, believe it or not, was not allowed to be broadcast without serious and expensive consideration. Even the records of the day had a warning label prohibiting them from being broadcast. It took a court case brought on by this pivotal radio program to render the warning legally not binding and that, coupled with the rising costs of live radio performances, led to records being played on the air. This kind of unco-operative thinking would also serve to introduce black records to radio when ASCAP, the major publisher refused to let stations broadcast their copyrights. BMI was formed and ‘race’ music gained a foothold on mainstream radio. Radio historian Rick Busciglioexplains how the Lindburgh baby trial led to a template for what was to come: “Martin Block was one of the key reasons that I followed a career in broadcasting. He was the most popular DJ, on the most popular non-network radio station in the New York metro area, WNEW.  In the mid-1930s, moved to New York from California, bringing with him a new idea conceived by Al Jarvis, at KFWB in Los Angeles (where Block had been a junior assistant). Jarvis’ revolutionary concept – playing records on the radio.

 From the early thirties, Jarvis’  “The World’s Largest Make Believe Ballroom” was on six hours a day and became a local success. But in 1932 Los Angeles, which is now the nation’s second largest market was not considered a major market. Jarvis’ program thus received very little attention outside the Los Angeles area, and enjoyed nowhere near the success of Block, who would become the nation’s number one radio personality for nearly a quarter of a century using a virtually identical format.

The program’s concept: Block pretended that the artists were performing live in the studio “ballroom” with him, as he spun their records. The beginnings of Block’s “Ballroom” show can be traced to February 3, 1935, when, on WNEW, he was broadcasting the trial of Richard Bruno Hauptmann who was ultimately convicted of kidnapping and killing the infant son of aviator Charles A. Lindbergh. During a long break in proceedings, Block decided to play some records, but the station didn’t own any, so he was forced to buy his own. Legend has it that he rushed around the corner to the Liberty Music Shop, returned with five Clyde McCoy records, and played them back to back to make it sound like a live broadcast from a dancehall. Block ad-libbed introductions that made it seem like he was actually chatting with McCoy, a Louisiana bandleader. It is likely that among these records was what would become McCoy’s theme song, “Sugar Blues,” which had just been released a few days earlier.

As the trial wore on, Block continued spinning records in his “Ballroom” style to fill in the periods between broadcasts direct from the courtroom. Within a few months, this evolved into the “Ballroom” show playing name bands for 15 minutes at a stretch.

After the trial ended, the makeshift show was retained due to requests from thousands of listeners.

In just four months his unscripted, easygoing style, combined with music solely from records, drew an audience of four million listeners, and the show was extended to two and a half hours. Advertisers lined up to sponsor the program: one department store reported that Block’s ad-libbed commercials sold 300 refrigerators during a blizzard, and when he made a wartime appeal for pianos to entertain the troops, the USO was offered 1,500 of them.

In 1940 the Federal Communications Commission relaxed its rules about identifying pre-recorded materials, requiring that they be identified only twice every hour. In that same year the courts ruled that the warning on record labels prohibiting broadcast use had no legal significance. From then on radio shows featuring recorded music became increasingly popular.

“It was Block, according to the author of a book commemorating WNEW’s fiftieth anniversary, who inspired Walter Winchell to coin the term “disk jockey.” Yet Bill Randle, one of the deans of the profession, has traced the term to the late Jack Kapp, a record executive who called DJs “record jockeys” in 1940 — possibly because their job often included controlling the sound volume, or “riding the gain,” on their records. However they got their tag, the radio field was soon filled with disk jockeys.” – Ben Fong-Torres in his book The Hits Just Keep On Coming, Miller Freeman Books, San Francisco, CA, 1998
If big band music was jazz, then Al Jarvis and Martin Block were the first jazz disc jockeys.

On October 11 1940, Glenn Miller recorded “Make Believe Ballroom Time” for RCA-Victor’s Bluebird subsidiary label at the Victor studios in New York City. It would become the theme song for Block’s “Make Believe Ballroom.” Miller had been so taken with the show’s concept that he actually paid for the “Make Believe Ballroom Time” recording session himself and hired the Modernaires to join in. By 1940, Martin Block could “make” or “break” records. If he played something, it was virtually guaranteed to become a hit; if he ignored it, it “died.” By the end of the war, the hit-making power of radio disc jockeys had earned them much greater respect in the music business, and Block was the undisputed “king” of the disc jockeys.

Block skillfully created the aura of doing a “live” radio program, complete with performers like Harry James or Nat King Cole (on records) “…from the Crystal Studios of WNEW.” At that time, the show’s famous crystal chandelier was as “make believe” as the “ballroom.” But the tremendous popularity of the show, heard twice daily, six days a week, led WNEW to construct a studio in ballroom form with a huge crystal chandelier and a red velvet chair for Block. His verbal imagery also included the “revolving stage” (actually his turntable) – upon which the artists performed:

“And now, Mr. Frank Sinatra ascends our revolving stage to sing ‘Nancy with the Laughing Face’.”

As a result of the work these radio pioneers; radio disc jockeying became a fully accepted profession and an integral part of the music industry in the fifties and the sixties. The disc jockey thus became a powerful hit maker whose patronage could jumpstart an artist’s career overnight.

In 1954, Martin Block left WNEW for WABC. He died on September 18, 1967.

Al Jarvis died in 1970.”

“Replacing Martin Block on The Make Believe Ballroom was initially, Art Ford, but the man who became almost as popular as Block, was William B. Williams. He is credited with tagging Frank Sinatra as “The chairman of the board.” Willie B.’s pictures are included in the slideshow. Remember “Hello world, this is William B. Williams.” Make Believe Ballroom

With records now being allowed onto the airwaves, radio began to shift its focus. By the end of the ‘40s, a new technological wonder arrived, at first in small numbers, but after comedian Milton Berle started to appear on the new medium, the new tech spread like wildfire. Radio’s hold on home entertainment was being usurped, their dramas, comedies, and variety shows moving over to the new medium, which began to innovate almost immediately. Those in the know started to sound the death knell for radio, especially after this innovation was introduced. Big Screen TV

So now radio, bereft of its stranglehold on home entertainment, started to develop its own stars. Armed with stacks of wax and a cadre of golden throated announcers, they soon discovered the announcers or ‘Disc Jockeys’ as they were now called, could command as big an audience as any Hollywood actor. Here, one of the biggest from 1952 through 1965. Like the other big jocks of the day, he had his own theme song and a host of famous performers recommending him on the air. Stan Z. Burns

Even before Stan, this gentleman is credited with not only popularizing the ‘one on one’ approach to broadcasting, but also inventing the baritone ukulele. Arthur GodfreySo big did Godfrey get, that eventually, the funniest man in show business parodied him on record. Unfortunately, CBS, who owned both of their contracts, wouldn’t let him release the record. It did not see the light of day until 16 years after Godfrey’s death. Freberg does Godfrey

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One man changed radio by introducing music no one had heard before outside of house parties and word of mouth tips. For years he was one of only a handful of broadcasters who saw the future of music radio. He was also the only man on mainstream radio saying ‘rock and roll’ over the airwaves. He integrated audiences, propelled young kids to stardom, created a huge influx of money into the radio and record industries, and started a cultural revolution that changed the face of radio and pop culture for all time. What did he get for his trouble? He became the scapegoat for a practice everyone was guilty of that to this day stands as a black mark on radio’s history. Payola, a meaningless word attached to an impossible task (being able to force people into buying a record they didn’t want) found its villain, in this chubby, happy man in a plaid sport coat. While Dick Clark and others went on to fortune and fame, Freed lost everything. Alan Freed

This mainstreaming of rock and roll, a marriage of hillbilly and blues music rolled along without a spokesman until this gentleman came along. With teen-perfect looks and the voice of a soulful singer of colour, Elvis Presley became the King of Rock and Roll in his teens and remains so to this day. There had been no one with this charisma and talent who was no older than his audience since Sinatra plied the boards. Witness the audience reaction to this live performance filmed when most people over 30 didn’t know who he was. Love Me Of course these days, the focus on Elvis has shifted thanks to TMZ, gossip, and just plain weirdness. Elvis Found Alive

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Radio’s next big leap was in the way of deciding that repetition would hold its audience longer, and coming up with formats that would assure the most popular records would get the most airplay. Now that radio was making some serious money, it made sense to ‘own’ your market. Still, they added a lot of new music every week, looking for more of the elusive records known as ‘hit’. Here’s the absolute best example of this at its purest and most entertaining peak. 93 KHJ

Meanwhile, there were still renegades and unique individuals plying the airwaves. While most jocks at mainstream Top 40, then 30, stations were scrambling to become ‘Good Guys’ or ‘Boss Jocks’, guys like this still commanded the most attention. Al ‘Jazzbo’ Collinsand another killer personality who marched to his own drummer managed to stay on the air AND stick out from the pack. Here’s an overview of one of them that spans over 3 decades. Wolfman Jack Demo Reel,Wolfman on XERB,andWolfman 1995

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We all know the recent history of our beloved radio. It has become a shadow of its former self. Oh the passion is still there but it is stifled and subdued, harnessed in the name of format and familiarity, and commerce. Radio, once controlled by free spirits and businessmen smart enough to hire the talented and passionate, and leave them alone to be creative and entertaining, have been replaced by bankers and lawyers, bean counters and consultants, whose main goals are to keep their stockholders happy and their coffers full. Are there exceptions? Of course there are, but they are few and far between. There are those like 94.9’s David Marsden who still deliver theatre of the mind radio, Q107’s John Derringer and his brilliant live Breakfast broadcasts, and the few out there who love bringing new artists and music to their listeners and are allowed to do so.

The biggest mystery and most disturbing tragedy is what has happened to mainstream music radio’s decision when it comes to their content. There was a time when the songs played on the radio were different from one another, the genre’s co-mingling with one another and the variety and new material making listening an adventure. You seriously never knew what you might hear. That is no longer the case. How similar are the records that radio plays these days? Just listen to these two examples. Mashup of 36 songs from 2010, and Rihanna x 8

There should be room for the best songs regardless of how it fits a ‘format’. We are being denied, and so are the young artists who are putting in their 10, 000 hours. Instead of offering cash prizes for those who think stardom and financial gain are the reward to be chasing, how about finding young working musicians and singers and buying them a van and getting them gigs, and send them out to hone their craft and work on their music, instead of an appearance on television or a record with a team of people who will just mold them into what get played.

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The internet is so vast, and such a singular pursuit, that finding the music we’re looking for has become a full time job, but no one is getting paid. Radio used to have the people who loved music, listened to it, and then played it for us to judge. We were a part of the process, not alone in the night in front of a computer looking for something to connect with, knowing it is there if only we can look in the right place. How much more enjoyable was it when we were all looking together, discussing what was presented to us, sharing the experience. The jocks were our friends, you could get them on the phone. They knew the local bands and presented shows in clubs. They were a part of the fabric of music, music discovery, and more importantly, they loved it as much as we did and shared our passion. They talked about our town, the local scene, and the music they played on the radio. We could relate. It was the Theatre of the Mind. Now, it just seems to be the Theatre of the Mindless.

This column originally appeared in December, 2011

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Segarini’s regular column appears here every Monday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

Bob “The Iceman” Segarini was in the bands The Family Tree, Roxy, The Wackers, The Dudes, and The Segarini Band and nominated for a Juno for production in 1978. He also hosted “Late Great Movies” on CITY TV, was a producer of Much Music, and an on-air personality on CHUM FM, Q107, SIRIUS Sat/Rad’s Iceberg 95, (now 85), and now publishes, edits, and writes for DBAWIS, continues to write music, make music, and record.

 

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