I’ve worked in the radio industry on and off since I was 18-years-old, and I’ve seen a lot of changes in the industry that have led to yearly contractions of jobs. First, it was the consolidation of radio properties in the mid-’90s. Then it was the implementation of more advanced automation systems that allowed voice-tracking (i.e., pre-recording a radio show) and music scheduling that created uniformed playlists. After that, cell phones cut into total time spent listening to the radio as people liked talking to someone on their way home from work, and not listening to some voice-tracked or “liner” DJ* play the same songs over and over. And now, for over a decade, the Internet has been the go-to source for media consumption and interaction. Car dashboards are no longer AM/FM with music players (8-track, cassette, or plug-in for iPods or music players on phones). No, with apps built-in, they have become “media centers” where hearing music from streaming services, texts read to you, and nav systems alerting you to traffic incidents are the norm — well, for those who have newer vehicles.
All these things are competing for our attention while driving, while at work, and while at home. And while competition is generally a good thing, many radio owners either change too slowly to said competition or become more conservative in taking risks on the air. Rarely do they create programming that reflects what’s unique about radio to its audience. You can point to Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, or Instagram and extol what’s unique about these platforms. But radio? What’s special about that?
Well, there’s plenty that is special about radio, but the industry to far too mired in corporate ownership for its unique qualities to truly shine. Don’t believe me? Think about all the songs that mention radio? Yes, some of the songs are critical, some are loving, and some use radio as a character…but one thing is clear: songs about radio are not in short supply.
After a quick Internet search, I found these titles:
Elvis Costello & The Attractions
The Spirit of Radio
Video Killed the Radio Star
Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio?
Radio Ga Ga
This Is Radio Clash
Wall Of Voodoo
You Turn Me On I’m a Radio
Heard It On The X
That’s Why God Made The Radio
The Beach Boys
Oh Yeah (There’s a Band Playing On the Radio)
Pilot of the Airwaves
On My Radio
Turn Up the Radio
On the Radio
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts
Rage Against the Machine
Radio Free Europe
On Your Radio
The Last DJ
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Left Of the Dial
The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)
I Can’t Live Without My Radio
LL Cool J
I Wouldn’t Believe Your Radio
Nothing On But The Radio
Capital Radio One
God Is in the Radio
Queens of the Stone Age
Around the Dial
Turn on the Radio
The Radio Song
Yesterday Once More
Boys on the Radio
Raised on Radio
Last Night a DJ Saved My Life
Well, you get the idea. Radio was and is an important part of people’s lives. These songs wouldn’t have been written if there wasn’t a connection made between the listener and the DJ — or the music that was played. Even though smart phones, email, social media, and YouTube are popular — and people have made genuine and deep connections on those mediums — I don’t think anyone is clamoring to write songs with titles like “Last Night Facebook Saved My Life,” or “I Can’t Live Without My Snapchat,” or perhaps “Twitter Twitter.” Although Britney Spears sang longingly in “E-mail My Heart,” I’m not sure she gets many requests to sing these lyrics today:
E-mail my heart
And say our love will never die (and I)
I know you’re out there
And I know that you still care (I know you care)
E-mail me back and say our love will stay alive
Forever e-mail my heart, woah
One of the reasons why these musicians have written so many songs about radio is because of the power it had to really shape the tastes of people. Part of that was because during a brief period, DJs could play what they wanted to play. But it wasn’t like your 13-year-old cousin with his laptop playing his favorite songs at your wedding and alienating the entire room. Rather, good DJs were people who really listened to the music, became fans of what they heard, could sift the wheat from the chaff, and feature songs that they had a gut sense would be received well by their audience. The free-form or progressive FM era is what I’m talking about. Not to romanticize it too much, but if you want to know when music radio really engaged their listeners, this was one of those times.
Now, I’m not a fan of Billy Joel’s music (I got burned out hearing his hits for two decades in Adult Contemporary radio), but I was listening to Alec Baldwin’s podcast “Here’s the Thing” when he interviewed Joel in 2013 the other day. At one point, Billy Joel was talking about his song “Piano Man” (one of the songs I can’t listen to anymore), and how it became a hit:
Joel: People perceive that to be a hit. It was not a hit.
Baldwin: “Piano Man”
Joel: But this was back in the early ’70s. In those days, they still had FM progressive radio. Disc Jockeys could spin whatever they wanted.
Baldwin: Yeah. (Imitating a DJ’s voice) WLIR…Denis McNamara.
Joel: That’s it.
Baldwin: Remember him?
Baldwin: I was a kid at home. I was smoking you-know-what…leaning out of my window so my mom wouldn’t know, and on the radio we’d hear: “WLIR…This is Denis McNamara…Jackson Browne.” I listened to this guy. He was my childhood. Denis McNamera.
Joel: We grew up with these Disc Jockeys. Alison Steele.
Baldwin: Alison Steele The Nightbird.
Joel: Vin Scelsa…And my favorite guy, (Imitating the DJ) “Scott Muni coming at ya…with a little Spooky Tooth. And now from England…Spooky Tooth…Scott Muni coming at ya.” They played whatever they wanted. The didn’t have program directors. They didn’t have consultants. And people would call in, and if they got enough requests, they would play a track. So “Piano Man” got requested all the time. It was a 5 1/2 minute record. It was not an AM hit…not at the time. It was too long. It was in three-quarter time.
So here are two accomplished performers sitting around talking about why DJs were so important to them. DJs introduced them to music, played their songs (in the case of Joel), and represented moments when one could really be transported to a happier state of mind by a distinct voice, engaging music — and in Baldwin’s case — some dimebag weed.
That’s audience engagement. But it was done in such a way that a mood was created between the DJ and the listener. It wasn’t manufactured by a consultant or program director to produce ratings. Rather, it was more of an organic thing that felt authentic to the listener — probably because it was. DJs were live, local, and featuring music they curated. But more than that, they were responsive to what people wanted to hear. “Piano Man” is a hit song, and since it’s been played over and over for decades, is considered a classic. But there was a time it was new, sounded fresh, was perhaps only played in a certain region, and it became part of the soundtrack of many people’s lives. I only use it as an example, but it seems like those moments (not just playing a song), but hearing music coming out of a radio on a show that you’re connected to, has been completely obliterated by the trends I listed at the beginning of this post.
Radio still has power, but it’s often used more for anger and resentment (which gets ratings) than the opposite. One just need to listen to AM Talk radio to know what I’m talking about. These “Talkers” — as they are called — do connect with their listeners, they do transport them to another state of mind, and the tell them what they want to hear, but it’s rarely for anything more than stoking fear, hatred, and division — while keeping them engaged long enough for the audience to hear the advertisements. To be fair, every radio programmer uses variations of these techniques of audience engagement (which includes more than a dash of psychological manipulation). However, before all these techniques got standardized into “programming philosophies” designed to “get ratings” and boost profits, radio — if you just listen to people who wax romantic like Joel and Baldwin — had the power to captivate us in ways that kept us wanting to hear what surprises were “coming up next.”
* A "liner" DJ or "liner jock" is one who just says the pre-scripted lines a program director tells them to. For example: "The New Mix 95...Today's Hits! I'm Blah McBlah. It's 3:45 and 53 degrees downtown. Here's Blah, blah, blah on The New Mix 95...Today's Hits!"