Justin Smallbridge: Radio Redux

justin_Smallbridge_headshot_01Mad Men is back, which is great. In addition to the multilayered work of Matthew Weiner and his cohorts on the series, the accompanying history and popular culture are concomitant joys of that show; it’s fun to work out when a particular episode is set and run down the attendant details. Season 6’s opener, “The Doorway,” happens at the end of December, 1967. “Hey,” some folks said, “What about the Summer Of Love”? Having Season 5 end before it started and Season 6 starting after it was over was a deliberate choice Matthew Weiner made, and it’s not tough to see why. The Summer Of Love happened in San Francisco — miles away, both geographically and psychically, from Manhattan, Rye NY and Madison Avenue specifically. Weiner said his specific reasoning for that choice was that the come-down and “hangover” offered a richer range of dramatic possibilities than the groovalicious summer months of 1967.

o-MAD-MEN-SEASON-6-POSTER-570(If you really want to know what it was like in San Francisco in 1967, The New York Times Magazine got the street-level view from an up-and-coming reporter named Hunter Thompson: “The ‘Hashbury’ Is The Capital of The Hippies,” May 14, 1976. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive/pdf?res=F20E16FD345C14738DDDAD0994DD405B878AF1D3

“Madison Avenue” was one of the pejorative terms hippies used to differentiate themselves from “the Establishment” and reject consumerism. But in the same way that war is the continuation of politics by other means, cover_conquestofcoolas von Clausewitz said, the whole “Sixties” thing now seems like the continuation of marketing by other means. It just took Madison Avenue a little longer than ideal to figure that out — by some lights, anyway. Author Thomas Frank argues pretty persuasively in his book The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism that Madison Avenue actually prefigured the whole counterculture and found a way to co-opt its main signifiers (much as I hate that word, it fits here) as a means of continuing — hell, accelerating — consumerism. As a certain scribbler once wrote, some years back, it was Columbia Records’ marketing department who anointed Bob Dylan “voice of a generation.”

I’m not decrying this whole advertising/consumerism thing. It’s like any art: there’s good music and lousy music, good art and bad art, great advertising and horrible advertising. The notion that a whole part of the culture is inherently bad — as advertising is so often derided — seems kind of nutty. Would the people who hate advertising prefer socialist realist art? (And if they would, how much of it have they seen?)

Okay, enough tangential careening. Let’s get to radio (again). Last time, I wondered why radio is so timid and narrow and risk-averse. Part of what got me wondering that started because of my interest in what radio used to sound like — what I grew up and what (since I’m a shallow post-boomer) radio sounded like before I was paying attention (or before I could decide what to listen to for myself).

cftrmagnetCFTR’s overnight show some time in 1973. The jock is “Rick Allen,” who is really SCTV stalwart, writer, actor, C&W musician and Donald Fagen video star Rick Moranis. (You’ll need RealPlayer, if you don’t already have it.) This is where Gerry Todd came from.

CHUM_radio_neon_signs_TorontoI used to work with people at Citytv who’d previously worked at CFTR, Ted Rogers’s Toronto AM Top 40 station that was gunning to knock CHUM-AM out of the top spot. The tricks they employed are as fascinating as they were effective. First, cleverly editing Top-40 single releases. Those of us of a certain age are all too familiar with the jingle element and radio-station marketing phrase, “more music.” But what does that mean? You might think it means more music per hour. If that’s the case and it’s the early 1970s, why not just throw on a side of The Allman Brothers’ Live At Fillmore East and drop some commercials in between tracks? Well, that’d be dull, and there wouldn’t be enough variety and you wouldn’t get a big enough audience to sell to advertisers. “More music” means variety — the number of different records you play during a quarter-hour. So how do you maximize that? There are a couple of methods.

BossRadio top 30Radio consultant Bill Drake (real name: Phil Yarborough) made sure his stations (KYNO Fresno, KGB San Diego, most famously KHJ Los Angeles and CKLW . . . The Motor City) kept jock patter to a minimum. Bill Drake explained it a couple of ways. One version was that the records were the work of the finest songwriters and performers currently working and the greatest recording technology available; they cost thousands of dollars to make and sold millions of copies, so if you’re a jock, what you have to say going into and coming out of those records had better be equally brilliant. The other version was the last line of Drake’s New York Times obituary: “If you’re going to say nothing anyway, say it in as few words as possible.” Drake and his lieutenants listened to all their stations obsessively. Every on-air booth had a hotline phone. Often, when that phone rang, the voice on the other end would be Paul Drew or Ron Jacobs, who’d bark “Tighten up!” before a slammed hang-up. Message received.

Boss Radio: KHJ Los Angeles, 1968 


Another way to get in more records per hour: editing. Take out a chorus or a verse. I used to wonder how they got so many different songs on those K-Tel compilations. They edited the records the same way the radio stations did. And they borrowed another technique. Consultants politely called it “tempo enhancement.” That’s an excessively nice way of saying “play it faster.” CFTR used to dub their 45 RPM singles to cart at 47.5 RPM. Two advantages: more records per hour (“More music!”) and it makes your competition sound like their records are playing too slow when listeners are bouncing up and down the dial.

And keep everything moving, a central element of which is “talking up” a record, also known as “hitting the post.” The jock delivers his patter and a weather and time check while the record’s instrumental is playing, the finishes right before the vocal starts. CKLW’s jocks were great at that, as were numerous others. WABC’s Dan Ingram was possibly the greatest –- as he was at so many radio things. He had a jingle of his name (“D-a-a-a-n Ingram”) that Dallas jingle house PAMS had cut years earlier when he was at KBOX in Dallas. Ingram was able to consistently not only talk up any record, but frequently able to talk up the record, drop in a “Dan Ingram” jingle and still hit the post.

Dan Ingram on WABC during the Summer Of Love

Don Ingram on WABC in 1975 http://www.jingles.com/audio/ota/1975-WABC.mp3

I’ve been enjoying Mr. Ingram’s work mainly because of the work of Allen Sniffen, a New-York-area dentist who grew up loving WABC and particularly the work of Dan Ingram, and who has built a brilliant website he started years ago at http://www.musicradio77.com. In addition to everything a person could want to know about that Top 40 powerhouse, which pretty much set the standard for the whole Top 40 thing from 1961 until it flipped to talk in May of 1982, Sniffen’s site features numerous airchecks of what the station sounded like, as well as every weekly chart from its time as a Top 40 station. And that section of the site has been a fascinating corollary to Mad Men. Once you figure out when a particular episode takes place, it’s pretty easy to look up the chart for that day or week on musicradio77.com. Take the season 6 opener, “The Doorway,” the last week of 1967 — the episode ends January 1, 1968.

What was on Sally Draper’s transistor in Rye, NY?

The chart from Dec. 26, 1967


Dan Ingram counts down WABC’s Top 100 of 1967 


What would’ve been on the radio? The Rolling Stones have a new entry that just entered the chart, “She’s A Rainbow.” John Fred & The Playboy Band’s “Judy In Disguise (With Glasses)” has jumped up a couple of spots. “Skinny Legs And All” by Joe Tex is slugging it out with The Doors’ “Love Me Two Times.” Lots of other soul” Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Chain Of Fools” and “I Second That Emotion,” just to name a few. The Fabs are at number one with “Hello Goodbye.” What strikes me about this list is how widely it seems to cast its net – all kinds of genres and approaches – everything from “hippie music” through dynamite R&B. And this is one week. Frank Sinatra was still regularly appearing in the charts at this point, and would continue to for more years yet.

The Day The Music Died on WABC

WABC’s rock-and-roll radio montage as rock-and-roll was leaving the radio

(Mr. Sniffen also has an app and a link you can connect your computer-based iTunes to, Rewound Radio. In addition to playing a lot of old records — and a wider range of “oldies” than any “oldies” station — they also run airchecks every Saturday. http://www.rewoundradio.com/)

I guess this is one of those instances where targeted demographics had a concomitant fracturing effect. But the eclecticism that less precision yields has a lot to recommend it; you can be surprised.

Just as enjoyable as all those records — the formatics of old radio: the pacing, the relentless forward momentum and the jingles. If you can’t track your audience through high-tech surveillance, you have to find some way to remind them what they’re listening to so they fill out that Arbitron or other ratings outfit diary correctly. That means a memorable hook, a signature melody for your jingle (for WABC, it was Richard Rodgers’s six-note figure “I’ll Take Manhattan,” and it didn’t come cheap). Jingles are pretty darn remarkable things, and don’t exist any more.

WABC: The Jingles http://musicradio77.com/jingles.html

PAMS-Logo-001Well, that’s not exactly accurate. Of course jingles still exist. It’s just that the classic jingles aren’t really used that much. Some “music of your life” or “good time oldies” formats use reanimated versions of the Johnny Mann Singers efforts for the Drake stations. But the jingles are still available. There were many jingle companies -– Heller Ferguson, Gwinsound, TM Century, Merriman –- but the king of them all for the Top 40 era was PAMS (which stood for Production Advertising Merchandising Service) of Dallas. Until they ran afoul of the IRS, there was nothing better. Their legacy continues under the guise of longtime PAMS employee Jonathan Wolfert, who’s been running PAMS successor JAM Productions, and who nabbed a lot of the master tapes and rights to the PAMS library, and put up a website where you can browse the tape-boxes in the library.

(Singing) “Pee-Ay-Em-Ess – PAMS of Dallas” http://www.pams.com/listen.html

You may or may not remember on our last go-round, during which I was musing on the notion that everything is now available all the time. That goes for old radio, too. Former radio guy Richard Irwin has been running a one-stop spot for bygone radio airchecks at http://www.reelradio.com. In order to defray the considerable cost of maintaining what must be the better part of a dedicated server farm for thousands of hours of streaming audio, reelradio.com does, in fact, charge for access to its thousands of hours of radio. But for $20 a year, it’s an incredible value. And in the last couple of years they’ve teamed up with an app so you can stream a lot of their airchecks through your smartphone or mobile device. That app will cost you a couple of bucks. But, hey, for a pretty measly outlay, you can become the 21st century version of yourself or your older sibling with a small device pressed against your ear, digging the mounds of sounds and the rapid-fire patter between the platters that matter. How’s that for being borne back ceaselessly into the past, as we get ready for yet another movie version of The Great Gatsby?

If you want to know more about what radio used to be like, how it got that way, and why it isn’t that way any more, I recommend Ben Fong-Torres’s The Hits Just Keep On Coming — highly entertaining as well as edifying. (http://www.amazon.com/Hits-Just-Keep-Coming-History/dp/0879306645)


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.

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