Radio Killed the Rock & Roll Stars

In the mid-'90s, Semisonic Shopped Their Single to Top 40 Stations, Answered Idiotic Interview Questions, Played Countless On-Air Jams, and Ended Up Feeling Like They Got Played--Even When Their Album Didn't. In Jacob Slichter's New Book, the Drummer Expl

Dan had this answer, too. "Take all the best records in your collection and melt them down into one record."

"Cool. Who are some of the bands that you like?"

John leaned toward the mike. "My Bloody Valentine." A nod to the hipsters.

Dan went next. "Björk." Aha! A smart trumpeting of our pop-star aspirations with an off-center (Icelandic) choice.

"Jake, how about you?"

"Marvin Gaye." A bit conservative, but unassailable. My Bloody Valentine, Björk, and Marvin Gaye--that ought to keep people guessing.

"So you brought your instruments with you. What are you going to play for us?"

The MCA local, knowing the station's musical leanings, had usually suggested a song to us in advance. "This is a song from our album called 'f.n.t.' One, two, three, four..."

We strummed, plucked, whacked, and sang as best we could, given the hour and the quality of the coffee we had just sipped. We were quite good at these on-air performances, something the locals could take advantage of in arranging other station visits. I trained my eyes on Dan, who was notorious for taking early-morning detours around entire verses and choruses, sometimes absentmindedly and other times in the interest of saving his voice. His scowls and smiles were good indicators of how well I had judged the volume of the overturned water jug I was using as a hand drum. Upon strumming the final chord, he would hold his hand in the air to suspend the silence and then lower it to mute the strings, at which point the DJ and the local would applaud--joined by the band members, of course. After all, no one could see us engaging in self-applause.

"Great. That was called 'f.n.t.,' and that's off your new album, Great Divide. When is it coming out?"

The answer was Tuesday, April ninth, but I knew better than to betray such uncool attention to the realm of commerce. "I don't know. Dan? John? In a few weeks maybe?"

"Sounds good. The band is Semisonic, and here's their new single, 'Down in Flames.' Thanks for coming in, guys."

"Thank you."

The DJ would punch a button and our first single would play on tens of thousands of radios across town. We packed up our instruments, shook hands with the DJ, and followed the local out of the studio and down the hall, past boxes and cabinets overflowing with station swag--posters, T-shirts, and hats, all covered with the station's logo--to the corner office of the program director.

The program director, or PD, is the most powerful person at a station. He or she decides what songs the station will play and how frequently it will play them. Unlike the old days of rock radio, the DJs have no say in the matter; they play songs only as dictated by the playlist. Requests are largely a fiction. If a DJ says, "Here's a request from Bob in Long Beach," chances are Bob in Long Beach requested a song that, according to the printed-out playlist, was already slotted for imminent airplay.

As far as the airwaves were concerned, the PDs held absolute power. Each station's PD would decide whether or not to play our single, whether to put it into light rotation (ten spins a week) or moderate or perhaps power rotation (thirty spins a week or more). The right PD could "break" us, turning thousands of listeners on to us and thereby launching our album and career. Or, even in the face of building momentum, an influential PD could kill our single by dropping it from the station's playlist, sending our stock plummeting. No wonder that when introducing us to a program director, the MCA locals typically bounced on their toes, smiled too much, and laughed too readily.

Some of the PDs were most welcoming, inviting us on a tour of their stations, embarking on discussions of new music that they found inspiring, and sometimes handing us CDs of bands they thought we would like. Dan and John were a great asset in these cases, for this subgroup of PDs, the music addicts, knew of Trip Shakespeare and enjoyed engaging with two musicians with superior musical literacy and taste. These PDs had a mission: turning the world on to interesting new music, a cause that usually doomed them to program obscure stations with weak broadcast signals and a listening audience that was loyal but small. A commitment to variety meant that their playlists accommodated a greater number of songs, giving fewer spins to each song, and thus they were excited to add Semisonic. They hinted that we should return sometime to play a longer set on the air, and such happy encounters would conclude with the MCA local snapping some pictures of the band and PD, photos that would then be sent off to the radio trade magazines--"Semisonic with WXYZ program director John Doe."

Another subset of PDs shook our hands limply. Just as they had sprinkled us into their playlists, they were equally hesitant to embrace us in person, but they left open the possibility of warmer relations in the future, depending on our success. One undecided PD in Wichita, after hearing our on-air interview--entirely devoted to hockey--said of us, "Kinda cerebral, but I like you." He disappeared before we could pose for pictures.

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