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

Most of the PDs, however, were egomaniacs for whom it seemed music was nothing more than the ammunition in the all-important ratings war with rival stations. Their connection to our music had been reduced to gauging the effects of "Down in Flames" on listeners. Their playlists were short--lots of spins for the proven hits and no room for anything else. Their bulletin boards were covered with updates on the on-air sports car giveaways and in-person appearances by the DJs at the local shopping mall. How depressingly predictable it was that these stations enjoyed the highest ratings.

The PDs who ran these stations had not added "Down in Flames." Nor would they grant us on-air interviews. One morning in Houston, the MCA local took us to visit two stations, neither of which was playing our single. At the first station, we had been refused an interview, but the PD allowed us to perform three songs for him and his staff in a conference room. The applause was restrained; no employee dared applaud too heartily and undermine the verdict of the glowering PD. After an icy good-bye, we drove to a second station, where again the PD refused to let us be interviewed on air. Furthermore, he refused to let us play for the station staff. The local pleaded with him and negotiated a compromise: We took our instruments into a coffee-break room and played for three secretaries as they ate pizza.

The PDs who liked us always invited us to record a few station IDs for future use. An engineer led us to a small studio and handed us a printout from which we read.

Daniel Corrigan

"Hi, I'm Dan."

"I'm John."

"And I'm Jake."

"We're Semisonic, and you're listening to Mary Lucia on Rev One-O-Five."

In addition to call letters and a frequency, most stations have a moniker such as "The River" or "Drive 105" and perhaps a slogan: "Where the music never stops." I noticed that some stations in different cities used the same nickname--"The Edge," for example. The locals informed me that this was because those far-flung stations used a common programming consultant, someone who advised the various program directors on song selection and station image. The number of people who decided whether or not our song would be played was frightfully small.

After recording the IDs, we'd wait on the couch in the lobby as the local finished business with the PD, perhaps talking about other MCA records. I'd sift through the magazines on the coffee table and pick a copy of Hits, a tip sheet for industry insiders full of columns promoting various songs and bands, and advertisements taken out by record companies to tout a particular single's early successes--"Most added at alternative last week." By contrast, the full-page ad MCA had taken out for "Down in Flames" included a picture of the band and a short list of stations playing the song.

Sometimes I'd get up to look at the gold and platinum records hanging on the wall of the lobby. These giant thank-you cards from record labels consisted of a framed picture of an album cover and a gold or platinum LP or CD. (Multi-platinum award plaques often display several platinum CDs, one for each multiple of one million records sold.) "Presented to WXYZ in recognition of sales of over two million copies of 'Siamese Dream.'" Finally, the local and the PD would emerge, the PD with station shirts draped over his arm: "Here, guys."

"Thanks." I didn't dare refuse a station's shirt, no matter how cheesy it looked. We'd hit two coffee shops and three stations before lunch. When the second and third DJs asked us the same questions, we'd twist the old answers into new ones. Our favorite locals would reward a good morning's work with lunch at a nice restaurant. "What do you guys feel like? French? Italian?" I always thanked the locals for lunch, and then one day it occurred to me...

"Dwayne, that's a corporate Amex, right?"

"Yeah."

"And you write 'Semisonic' on the credit-card slip, and that gets billed to our recoupable account, right?"

"Yeah."

"So really, shouldn't you be thanking us for lunch?"

 

Copyright © 2004 by Jacob Slichter. From the book So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star by Jacob Slichter, published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

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