Justin Smallbridge: Radio Radio

justin_Smallbridge_headshot_01Who listens to radio?

And how?

Stan Freberg

(assisted by Sarah Vaughan and Quincy Jones) asked that question musically and comedically in 1965 for the Radio Advertising Bureau.

“Who Listens To Radio?” / Stan Freberg, Sarah Vaughan, Quincy Jones, 1965.

I got to thinking about it because of a phone-survey call about a week ago. Some poor soul in an offshore call-center gulag whose English was so newly acquired it was a real struggle for him to fight his way through the script had Radio - Oldall kinds of questions about my radio preferences. Answering those questions got increasingly difficult the longer we went, because after establishing which stations I listened to in this market, there were questions about what other stations I listened to. Well, that includes WNYC, one of New York’s public radio stations, KPLU-FM, out of Tacoma, for its jazz, whichever online version of Boston’s WGBH-FM runs jazz, New York’s WBLS-FM, which used to be a hits-playing “urban contemporary” station, but which stopped adding new records to its playlist about 20 years ago and thus morphed into a hip-hop/R&B oldies station running a more recent take on the “Jammin’ Oldies” gold soul smashback format that enjoyed a brief vogue at the turn of the century (on Buffalo’s WBUF, among other places, where it played for less than two years).

car radioAnswering that is trickier now, given the way technology is disrupting the radio business just as profoundly as it’s realigning everything else.

So-called “terrestrial radio,” as it’s quaintly known now, is usually on in the car, as errands are run and children are shuttled around. I notice the kids will voluntarily tune into the local Top 40 station. In this case, it’s Bell’s “The Beat 94.5 FM.” In case you haven’t listened lately, “Top 40” currently means an eleven-song playlist of indistinguishable poppy, synth-and-sample-heavy HitMakerAuto-Tuned electronic dance music variants which always includes at least one Rihanna nodule and at least one Bruno Mars mp3, and one cut that isn’t. Last year at this time, it was Gotye’s “King Of Pain” cover — sorry, I keep doing that; I mean, of course, “Somebody That I Used To Know.” This month it’s The Lumineers’ scratchy burlap oat-bran-infused lyrically-impaired yelp-along, “Hey Ho.” (Hey — no.)

Bell’s The Beat seems to be clenched in a bruising slugfest with Rogers’ Sonic 104.9, which plays the same eleven songs and which poached the Beat’s Kid Carsonmorning drive jock, “Kid Carson” a few months ago in an effort to claw its way to the top. There are minor variations on that theme up and down the dial. We supplement that selection with KISM, the “classic rock” station out of Bellingham, Washington, Rock 101 here in Vancouver, but they’re just as guilty. “Classic Rock” — in radio terms — has been reduced to a short stack of burnt chestnuts in just as restrictive and restricted a rotation as anything on contemporary hit radio: the same three Boston cuts, “Freebird,” Rush’s “Spirit Of Radio,” “Closer To The Heart” and “Tom Sawyer” (Pye Dubois appears not to have read the book he swiped that title from) and you can probably recite the rest yourself. Or Google the phrase “most overplayed songs on classic rock radio” and you’ll get a range of opinions. But at least six of the artists will be on every list.

Rush. “Tom Sawyer.” How come classic rock radio never plays this version? (And how come I can’t hear that synth keyboard line without involuntarily singing, “This is really boring. This is really boring. This is really boring. This is really boring”?)

I know every station’s programming must be heavily focus-grouped and demographically sliced and diced and shuffled, massaged and palpated for maximum profitability and the greatest advertiser appeal, but an 12-year-old girls waiting breathlesslyunfortunate side-effect of that intense targeting is that it wears thin pretty fast if you happen not to be, say, a 12-year-old girl waiting breathlessly for a Justin Bieber record. And given the technological options for accessing that audio software, if you were a 12-year-old girl and desperately needed to hear Justin Bieber, would you be patiently waiting for the radio station’s automated mp3 shuffler to cough him up? So, given that everything is available all the time everywhere now, how come radio isn’t using its only advantage in this brave new world — surprise and curiosity?

Obscure B moviesThat question gets sharper with a couple of other considerations. Pundits and marketing wizards and futurist wisenheimers and Deep Thinkers™ are constantly repeating their mantra about the so-called “long-tail” phenomenon — planned obsolescence and “limited time only” are bygone curios. The new, now thing is that, yes, just about everything is available everywhere all the time. Obscure B movies that played the local Bijou for a week in 1932 are on DVD or woman screamingstreamable with a new print struck from a digitally-restored negative: luxuriate in the bottomless depth of those inky blacks; appreciate how the severe German expressionist lighting works as a metaphor for the protagonist’s moral compromise. And please notice the otherwise-unavailable score, the last thing Bix Beiderbecke recorded before his death.

If we can do this with movies and old television shows, why isn’t radio doing it? The documentary Searching For Sugar Man was a major hit, largely because of word-of-mouth excitement. But for all that, and for all the times I’ve heard Sixto Rodriguez’s work played at people’s homes, I don’t hear it on the radio, and I can’t figure out why I don’t. It’s causing a stir, people are talking about it, it’s music. What possible argument would radio professionals offer for not playing it?

Searching For Sugar Man trailer. How come this music isn’t on the radio?

Another weird aspect of this situation is that I am still discovering new songs I didn’t know before on the radio, but it’s usually on old radio — airchecks from forty and more years ago. Take Dean Friedman’s “meet-cute” number, “Ariel.” It got into the mid-twenties on the Billboard chart in 1977, but it wasn’t until a few months ago, when I was listening to an aircheck of New York’s WPIX-FM from June of that year that I heard it.

Dean Friedman: “Ariel.” “I said, ‘Hi.’ She said, ‘Yeah, I guess I am.’”

Take another example: I’m a fan of soul and R&B. I have a lot of it on tape, digitally and in various vinyl formats: seven-inch 45s, greatest-hits albums, various-artist compilations and aggregations of ultra-obscure crate-digging arcana. But just a couple of years ago, I discovered Lamont Dozier’s (Yeah, the “Dozier” in Motown’s “Holland-Dozier-Holland”) “Fish Ain’t Bitin’” because Richard Pegue played it on Chicago’s WVON during his overnight show on June 9, 1975.

Lamont Dozier: “Fish Ain’t Bitin’”

Eight-minute profile of WVON’s Richard Pegue. What he started out playing as “currents,” he ended up playing as “dusties,” and on the same frequency — 1390 MHz AM.

There have only been a couple of times recently that I heard something new on the regular old radio. A couple of years ago, the local Aboriginal Voices station played The Budos Band. Actually, the local CKAV station could be a model for commercial radio music programming. It seems to be programmed like a college radio station; everything gets played. It seems like what the Jack format was initially supposed to be like: listening to somebody else’s iPod on shuffle, only with commercials and interjections from Howard Cogan.

The Budos Band: “Budos Rising.” How come only the local CKAV2 outlet is playing this? This should be a hit all over everywhere.

But even the Jack format doesn’t go far enough. It restricts itself to stuff that’s already been a hit, so while there may be variety, it’s all too familiar. Why can’t radio programmers employ the same fanatical crate-digging zeal to find the great-but-overlooked, the initially unnoticed diamond? It seems to be a principle that’s guiding a lot of producers and beat-assemblers — why couldn’t radio programmers play the source of a sample next to the song that uses it? If you’re going to play Beyonce’s “Gift From Virgo,” why not follow it back-to-back with its source, Shuggie Otis’s “Rainy Day” (from the LP Inspiration Information, reissued on CD some years back with plenty of bonus material, and which everybody should have a copy of)?

Beyonce: “Gift From Venus.” Shoulda been titled “Gift From Shuggie Otis.” Glad he’s getting the royalties, but your vocal’s a liability here, Mrs. Knowles-Carter, not an asset.

“Rainy Day” / Shuggie Otis, off the LP Inspiration Information.

I can only assume the reason radio doesn’t do this is because of terror-driven risk aversion. But given what seems to be happening to every other business thanks to digital disruption, what has radio got to lose? I keep thinking about Citytv’s business model (once upon a time, and long since abandoned once mosesthey jettisoned Moses Znaimer, unfortunately), which wasn’t to be number one in the market, as Jay Switzer explained to me for a magazine story I wrote back when there were magazines. He said City didn’t necessarily want the biggest audience. If they got the balance right, they could, instead, have a smaller, more reliably loyal audience, and that loyalty — that faithful viewers would always see what City had on first, before checking out the competition — could be sold to advertisers just as well as a larger but more fickle audience, and with less uncertainty. That model worked for a long time, too, so there were numbers and money to prove its worthiness. Why couldn’t radio try something like that? It would be a good way to differentiate itself, which ought to be preferable to the current situation, where you have multiple stations in the same market that are indistinguishable from each other because they’re chasing the same audience.

CKLW…The Motor City. Excerpt from an excellent documentary about The Big 8 that everybody should not only see, but own a copy of.

You can read more about it and order it here

Maybe I just got a warped perspective. I started paying attention to the radio when I was about 10 or so in London, Ontario. Not a bad place for radio, or maybe it was a time that was pretty good for radio. Looking back, there was a lot more variety, at least on the stations I was listening to. We got CKLW out of Windsor/Detroit — a Drake-programmed 50,000-watt blowtorch. We got 1290-cjoeCHUM-AM out of Toronto, and, later, CFTR, although it wasn’t really much of a contender until 1973. Locally, though, it was CJOE, which was playing a mix of Top 40 chart records and LP selections apparently of its own choosing, although there may have been some consultant help determining that list. I still remember Humble Pie’s “I Don’t Need No Doctor” off Rockin’ The Fillmore topping its 1971 year-end countdown, something that seems impossible viewed from now.

Humble Pie. “I Don’t Need No Doctor.” Rockin’ The Fillmore. 1971. The #1 song in London, Ontario in 1971, according to CJOE 1290 AM.

A big part of my musical and radio education came from an even smaller and weirder source. In the even smaller town of St. Thomas, way up at the end of the dial — 1570 MHz — was CHLO. Though it was an AM station, it was programmed like a free-form FM. They played a lot of LP cuts, in addition to running syndicated features like Dick Orkin’s deeply weird “Chicken Man.” That was where I first encountered National Lampoon’s “Deteriorata” and The Firesign Theatre’s “Further Adventures of Nick Danger”“Those Fabulous Sixties.” And I don’t know of any other station that would have played all of The Firesign Theatre’s “Further Adventures of Nick Danger” ever. I heard it late at night. I can only assume the jock wanted time for a smoke or a whiz or something else that required 20 or so minutes. At the time, that never occurred to me. Luckily, the clerk in London’s Sam The Record Man knew exactly what I was talking about as I tried to describe a strange parody of a 1940s radio detective story that included a lot of drug jokes and Beatles references.

The Firesign Theatre. How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All? 1969. They started in radio, on KPFK FM in Los Angeles. Their engineer, The Live Earl Jive, eventually ended up at CFNY. Ed. Note; at one time, Family Tree, Wackers, and Dudes bass player William ‘Kootch’ Trochim and I memorized the complete ‘Nick Danger’ skit and quoted it verbatim endlessly, much to the eventual chagrin of our bandmates. 

Chickenman. (He’s everywhere, he’s everywhere!)

“Deteriorata.” National Lampoon. Bracing antidote to “Desiderata.” Written by Tony Hendra.

When CHLO wasn’t playing its idiosyncratic mix of hits and album cuts, it played Herbert W. Armstrong and the Worldwide Church of God’s Jesus-addled evangelizing. I can only assume that that was leased or brokered time, although I can’t imagine how the Worldwide Church Of God hoped to pick up converts from CHLO’s audience. I have since learned that CHLO and CJOE were slugging it out with essentially the same cobbled-together ad hoc format of chart records and “hip” LP cuts until the fall of 1972, when CJOE became CJBK, with a much more straight-ahead “play the hits” Top 40 format.

It strikes me they were trying to figure out how to get an audience in an era when they had no real idea how to do that and didn’t have all that much to lose. Are we starting to see some parallels with our modern age, possibly?

In the summer, you went to “the lake” somewhere in Haliburton or Muskoka, a place where, at night, you’d troll up and down the dial and listen to WLS out of Chicago, WBZ from Boston, WOWO, Fort Wayne, Indiana and, of course, the station everybody was chasing, New York’s WABC. At this point, WABC was the undisputed ratings leader in North America.

Dan Ingram, WABC, 10/6/73. This is scoped, so you just get the jocks and the spots. But dig how Dan talks up and interacts with the records and still hits the post, plus his humor, and how he makes not wanting to do an open or a close his open and close.

There’s lots more radio stuff, but we’ll have to save that story for next time.


Justin’s column appears here every 4th Friday

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS ButtonJustin Smallbridge is, among other things, a writer, producer, broadcaster, voiceover artist and record collector.

One Response to “Justin Smallbridge: Radio Radio”

  1. Great piece, loved it, and just for the record, we do play Nick Danger on our stream…also I try to follow a Dylan song with “Those Fabulous Sixties” from Radio Dinner, often wonder if my audience “gets it”…Thanks Again!

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