Radio Radio

We search the airwaves for signs of intelligent life

EDITOR'S NOTE: People have been predicting the demise of radio almost from the day in 1901 when Guglielmo Marconi first transmitted electrical signals across the Atlantic. Every new invention was supposed to be the death knell of the medium: record players, movies, TV sets, compact discs, the Internet, Napster, disposable diapers. And yet radio has consistently flipped the bird to its naysayers.

It's still a thrill to stumble upon the Next Big Thing while driving home from work. Problem is, you're less likely to be surprised by radio these days. In two of the stories that fill the following pages, G.R. Anderson Jr. addresses the fact that commercial radio is increasingly owned by a handful of nationwide corporations with their eyes glued to the bottom line and their ears sealed in tin. Meanwhile, contributor Rob Levine argues, public radio's obsession with winning a lucrative demographic has obscured its mission. The only place where things are truly unpredictable, it seems, is on AM talk radio, where, as writers Paul Demko and Mike Mosedale found, Christian rockers and conservative white males are staging a raid.

So while radio may well be here to stay, it's hard not to conclude that, as Anderson opines in the essay that opens this package, the thrill is pretty much gone.


Popped Off

New Year's Eve, 1979. I had new pajamas from JC Penney, a sheet of paper, a No. 2 pencil, and a Lloyd's AM-FM transistor radio.

My folks and my father's mother had settled in front of the TV to celebrate alternately with Dick Clark and the Guy Lombardo orchestra. Given permission to stay up with the adults, I found a corner in our living room, plugged in the transistor (encased in black faux leather), and tuned into Casey Kasem counting down the year's top 100 songs on KDWB-FM (101.3).

Right up until the stroke of midnight, I sat glued to the radio and carefully wrote down, in descending order, the final top 42 songs of the year. Though I can recall several moments in my childhood where I obsessed on pop music, there's something about this particular geek-out that has always stuck in my memory. I was in fourth grade, in what was a particularly happy, well-adjusted time of my life. So what, I've always wondered, could possibly have driven me to such nerdy behavior?

Recently, I came upon the answer: true love.


You would think the hit songs of 1979 would be long gone, trampled under years of pop culture. After all, nobody still listens to Robert John or Peaches and Herb. Right?

Wrong. E.L.O. was at No. 42 on my list with "Don't Bring Me Down." That song still gets played almost daily in the Twin Cities' market; same with "Sultans of Swing" (or "Saltines," as I wrote it) by Dire Straits. "Logical Song" by Supertramp? Ditto. And don't forget retro hits like "We Are Family" by Sister Sledge, "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor, the Knack's "My Sharona," Blondie's "Heart of Glass," and, the No. 1 hit of the year, Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" Warranted or not, these songs are more than mere blips from a bygone era. They are drive-time staples.

Why do these tunes stubbornly refuse to fade away? To find the answer, one needs to go back to 1979, when FM was quickly replacing AM as the place to hear music, and a polling experiment dubbed "call-out research" was sweeping the radio biz. The brainchild of a DJ who rose to prominence on an FM station in Phoenix, the idea was to first figure out the "hook" of a song--the part that is most memorable --then play that fifteen-second splice of some twenty songs over the phone to a potential radio listener. (Never mind that some songs of the era, like Barbra Streisand's "The Main Event" and Elton John's "Mama Can't Buy You Love," might not have a quick, discernible hook. There were parts, according to the researchers, that people could recognize within the allotted time.)

About 200 listeners a week were asked if they recognized the song. If the first answer was an overwhelming no, the song could quickly be relegated to back-burner status. If the answer was yes, the next phone-poll question concerned general impressions of the song. The overall response, based on scale of one to five, determined how many times the record got on the air each week--in industry parlance, "spins."

This was a more scientific departure from how hits were chosen in the Fifties and Sixties, when AM radio was ruled by requests. That's because somewhere along the line, radio programmers realized that a mere ten percent of their listening audience was actually calling in their favorites. (If you believe the mythology, that's why the AM dial was ruled almost exclusively by the tastes of teenage girls.)

With the explosion of FM radio in the late Sixties, the calling habits of listeners became increasingly moot. Initially, that's because nobody really cared about the stereo frequency: There were no listeners and there were no advertisers. As FM pulled in hip listeners interested in new music, everybody started to look for a quick piece of the action. Already the bottom line, not the medium, started to become the message.

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