RADIO AS ART
laradio.com 26 May 2004 © George Pollard
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 U.S. 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 83-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.
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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 20? If I couldn’t, 10,000 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 Neaverth 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, a 1.000-watt station in Camden, N.J. He billed himself as the “Geater with the Heater.” (Don’t ask.) WCAM reputedly paid Jerry $30 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 showplace for Motown. Until the emcee introduced them, tension ran high. After the introduction, they were among 5,000 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 Freberg 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 finish 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.
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.
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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, Cleveland, as it did in 1970, and, again, from WHK, 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.
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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 www.theaircheckfactory.com. Hear what went before. Imagine the sound of tomorrow. Or, visit www.reelradio.com. (Ed: or www.rockradioscrapbook.com!)
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.
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Send criticism and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. George Pollard is a Social Psychologist at Carleton University in Ottawa.
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