Thursday, September 4, 2008

Musical Notes by Bob Duskis: Radio, Radio Part 4

(In case you're coming into this tale in the middle- over the course of a few columns I've been outlining my experiences in FM radio during the last days of format free, free-form broadcasting. It all makes maximum sense if you start at the beginning with Radio Radio Part 1

I'll never forget it- the day- the moment are forever burned into my memory. When I went to work on that fateful day, I thought it would be a radio shift like all my others but I knew something was up when I arrived at the station and my boss was waiting for me. Program directors just don't usually "hang out" at the station at 11pm at night, My first thought was that I was getting fired but something about the way my boss was acting didn't seem like that was what was going down. Then I saw the printed out list of songs that was waiting for me by the control board. In calm, patient tones, my boss proceeded to explain to me that things were changing at the station. We were no longer going to be a "free-form" station and were moving to a new "format". The company that owned the station had hired a "consultant" to advise us on what to play, what to say and how to market ourselves.

It was a very simple concept: spaces on the radio dial had become way too valuable to squander on "progressive" concepts like the "Quiet Hour" and programming that was locally dictated by the DJs themselves. Some guy out of Chicago named Lee Abrams decided that through extensive market research he knew what listeners wanted to hear and he charged handsomely to share that knowledge with program directors around the country. The AOR (Album Oriented Rock) format was born and WIBA FM was one of many rock stations that jumped on its band wagon.

And just what were the magic ingredients in this new format? You know it well becuase it is still very much the dominant sound of commercial rock radio to this day. Familiar classics from groups like Led Zeppelin, the Who and the Beatles were put into heavy rotation so that you could hear "Stairway to Heaven", "Freebird"and "Won't Get Fooled Again" a few times a day. (in other words, songs that you loved at one time became hideous cliches that made you scream every time they came on). These rock classics were mixed in with new tracks from the artists of the moment like Styx, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Bob Seger and Van Halen. The music by no means catered to my particular tastes but the truly horrific thing about the format was how often the songs were played. Imagine playing "Against the Wind" by Bob Seger TWICE in a 5 hour shift EVERY DAY! I knew that I had been pushed across the line into gibbering insanity when my girlfriend pointed out to me that I was singing "Hot Blooded" by Foreigner in the shower. Whether I liked the songs or not, they were catchy as hell (that's why they were hits after all) and they were all taking up permanent residence in the jukebox in my head.

The music change was bad enough but even more humiliating were the phrases that we were required to say at regular intervals. The station's new catch phrase became: "More rockin'- less talkin'" further cementing the concept of the DJ/ announcer as an expendable and superfluous commodity. We had no say in what we played and we were proudly announcing the fact that we weren't going to mess up your listening experience with our useless prattle.

As part of the format change, the first part of my shift was now allocated to a "featured album" which I would play in its entirety starting at 11pm. The beginning of my end came one night when I had to feature Styx's new release at the time, the staggering classic Mr. Roboto. In my intro to the record I stated that this new release was supposed to be a concept album and that, although I had listened to the music and read the linear notes I still could not quite figure out what the concept was supposed to be but "suffice is to say Tommy it aint".

The next day the station received dozens of complaints from listeners who did not like my attitude and who were offended by my "dissing" Styx. To fully understand the depth of my crimes, you have to know that Styx were a Chicago band and on their way up the music business food chain, they played lots of high school proms throughout the Midwest. This had built them a rabid fan base among Midwestern listeners and these folks did not appreciate their heroes being insulted by some snide radio announcer (besides wasn't I supposed to be doing "more rockin' and less talkin'" anyway?) I had to apologize on the air the next night and was given a "warning" by my boss. No more editorializing. No more exhibiting the slightest shred of a personality.

I soon learned to treat my radio career as a "job". The joy had been sucked out of it but it still beat any number of other horrible ways I could make a living. The saddest thing of all is the fact that the "dumbing down" of the station worked spectacularly. I was "let go" of my slot after almost two years on the air but ratings shot up, advertising increased and the corporate powers that be were thrilled. Lee Abrams was hailed as a visionary and his format spread throughout the land like a nasty rash. As revenues increased, more corporations bought chains of stations and the idea of the airwaves being set aside for the "public trust" became a quaint concept of the past. Things hit a new low when a company called Clear Channel came along and basically "bought up" the entire medium along with concert halls, ticket agencies and anything else they thought could generate a "red cent".

And that's what takes us to where we are today. But wait...for every action there is a reaction...isn't there?

To be continued...

Lee Abrams

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