Do You Remember Rock & Roll Radio?
The 100 Tunes of Oldies Rock Radio
"Do you remember Murray the K, Alan Freed, and high energy?
...Do you remember rock & roll radio?" -- Ramones, 1980
Everything is clear, shiny, and hard in the offices of Clear Channel Radio on Barton Springs Road -- everything but the carpet, which looks like it's seen the pacing of too many shiny brown loafers. Every non-carpeted surface gleams, whether it's chrome or clear plastic. The receptionist at Clear Channel, owners/operators of KHFI (contemporary hits), KPEZ ("classic rock," Z-102), KEYI (Oldies 103), and KFON (the AM sports channel), is distractedly humming off-key to the tune being played on KHFI, a see-through plastic reggae treatment of Elvis' "Can't Help Falling in Love."
Hanging on the walls are portraits of what must be the on-air personalities from Clear Channel's stable of stations. The framed 8"x10"s portray a series of non-descript faces with perfect features, framed by inoffensively "hip" haircuts, radiating the same bland sense of "with-it"-ness most deejays seem to possess. There's a sense of "serious work" going on at these offices, probably because this is the week budgets are being hashed out, which is doubtlessly adding more wear to the carpets and shoe leather.
Across town at KUT, Paul Ray is winding down one of his many non-Twine Time air shifts, one which finds him spinning jazz renditions of familiar Sixties pop favorites like "Happy Together" and "Say a Little Prayer." The KUT control room is equally as shiny and gleaming as the Clear Channel lobby, and looks more like a NASA space module than any radio control room. There are knobs and dials, switches and faders, CD players and floppy disc machines used to play back the promos, station IDs, and other ephemera that was once dumped onto tape cartridges. Ray points to a recessed portion of counterspace covered by a modular lid. "That's where the turntables are," he says. "I had to raise hell to keep 'em, too. [KUT] wanted to do away with them, and all the albums in the library. I told 'em, `I can't do my show without 'em.' I just can't."
John Roberts, a large, harried-looking gentleman who programs the Clear
Channel stations was reluctant to show off the fifth-floor studios of Oldies
103. He assured me they were quite similar to the studios of Z-102: a rack of
maybe 1,000 CDs, a slightly less space-age control layout, and a reassuring
wall of promo and station ID carts. He's right in one way: What's a "classic
rock" station, anyway, but an oldies station for someone who grew up in the era
of hash pipes, bombed-out Camaros, and Led Zeppelin
8-tracks? There definitely aren't any turntables to be seen in the Z-102 studios. But they've got all the Who CDs you could want.
"Do you remember lying in bed? With the covers pulled up over your head? Radio playin' so no one could see...."
I'd venture a guess that several of us don't. Let's face it, commercial radio has smelled like a pile of rotting deer carcasses since at least 1970. This was the year when, as Paul Ray puts it, "the salesmen took over." People who understood music less than they understood marketing came to power, and the concept of formatting stations according to market research became a common practice; phone surveys, control groups, and retail sales began dictating what got played on radio. Thus, the lowest common denominator became the most common dominator of what tunes became airwave favorites.
Not that this was a new concept, mind you: Top-40 radio was actually invented in Dallas in the mid-Fifties by a gentleman named Gordon McClendon, who refined the music-and-news format developed by KOWH in Omaha and passed onto its sister stations in the powerful Storz chain. Back then, however, there was still room for weird, hick, regional phenomena -- some local gutbucket blues singer, or an a capella trio practicing around the corner from the neighborhood drugstore/soda fountain -- to invade the playlist, perhaps to even become a mutant national or international phenomenon.
Something changed. Radio has always been in the business of generating advertising revenue, but it didn't take long before no one was willing to take chances in that revenue generation. All the rough edges were smoothed. The same 40 songs you'd hear played here would be the same 40 you'd hear in New Orleans, Omaha, or Kalamazoo. Uniformity was the key, and is now the norm. Why? Because people like Clear Channel's John Roberts, who has been involved in this science for 20 years in various markets (four of them here at Clear Channel), claim that's the way you like it. He's checked with you through market research and he's given you exactly what you've told him you want.
"Will you remember Jerry Lee, John Lennon, T. Rex, and Ol' Moulty?"
Not likely. At least since the mid-Eighties, most of the weird regional phenomena, the single-hitters, raw and wild primitive junk has been missing from oldies formats. It's been determined that the place for these tear-aways from the norm is specialty shows like Twine Time -- by now an Austin institution. Every Saturday night since the late Seventies, on a program originated by the ubiquitous Bill Bentley, Ray's been coming into the KUT studios with boxes of scratchy, cracklin' 45s, jammin' the likes of Lazy Lester into Eddie Cochran and stitching together sets with a unique wit or a thematic purpose, leaning towards the raw, the gutbucket, the most black of ancient sounds. It's likely the closest modern link to the heyday of rock & roll radio: radio as warm and personable as the ancient 45s Ray plays every Saturday night.
Otherwise, the history of rock & roll gets reduced to the smallest number
of parts -- 80-to-100 songs recycled in varying combinations across a four-hour
block. And to hear oldies radio, it seems as though James Brown recorded no
song other than "I Got You (I Feel Good)," while the entire careers of Elvis
Presley, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones have been reduced to roughly six
songs apiece (although Roberts assures me that I can hear 32 other Stones'
songs if I tune in
Z-102). Massively influential artists like Bo Diddley or the Yardbirds just plain never existed. (Excuse me, again: There are at least two or three Yardbirds cuts in rotation at Z-102.)
And that, I've been assured by many, is the way you like it. Since beginning research on this piece, several intelligent people with massive record collections and extensive musical knowledge have made similar statements to me, the gist being: "I turn on oldies radio when I'm in the office or at work, because that's what I want to hear. Normally, I can't stand shit like `Sugar Sugar,' or Tommy James & the Shondells. I wouldn't play it at home, but I don't mind it within that context, however."
Roberts backs this up. "You're right. Since 1955 or whenever, there's thousands of great records made. And maybe if people heard it, they'd think, `Hmmm. I remember that song!' But generally, once you reach your 30s or 40s, there's other things in your life that matter more than records. You have a job or a business, you have a family, you have responsibilities. Music just isn't that important anymore. Sure, you like it, but it's not that important. So, you don't want to have to think about this. You want to hear a few songs you remember -- the Top 3 hits from when you were in high school to kick back with."
Wait a minute. Are people's memories really that short? Do they honestly not remember that James Brown's catalog of hits stretched beyond "I Got You (I Feel Good)," to include some absolutely deathless grooves like "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "Cold Sweat, Pt. 1," which had nearly as much chart impact?
No, not necessarily. But according to Roberts, what he programs is what has endured in our collective memory, and that which your average oldies listener wants to hear. "Unlike when they were 18," he insists, "when their musical tastes were formed, our listeners no longer care to be on the cutting edge. They don't want to be challenged." They merely want to be entertained. The other tunes "have their place": ghettoized to "specialty formats" like "Fifties weekends" and the like, or else to fringe programs like Twine-Time, or KOOP's Garage Show. So, the weird shit gets aired within such constricted confines where it maybe triggers a few long-buried memories, but doesn't interfere with Business As Usual.
"We need change, and we need it fast, before rock's just part of the past, 'cause lately it all sounds the same to me...."
As long as the salesmen have the run of the operation, it'll always be Business As Usual. Bo Diddley will be locked in the closet 'til "Fifties Weekend," when he'll be allowed to romp out with his one signature hit alongside the Moonglows and Ricky Nelson just as he did in his heyday. And anyone annoyed at such a prospect can "go buy a greatest hits album," as Roberts advises, so we can play it on our time and in our own privacy.
Paul Ray sees a future in AM radio, of all things. He sees a day when they'll finally tire of the talk radio format currently dominating the AM band, and new musical formats will rise, aided by technological advances. "They've now developed clear-channel AM stereo technology," says Ray, "and that could be where good old rock & roll or old country or old punk formats -- whatever -- all that could be pioneered there. There's room for everything."
For one as knowledgeable and phlegmatic on the subject of commercial radio as Ray, he's possibly overly optimistic. He's right, there is room for every taste, but it's a vicious circle: If you've reduced the art of Giving the People What They Want to a science thanks to the miracle of market research, pretty soon, people forget what they want, and think the narrow menu they're being offered is what they want. It trickles right down to the business of selling the public back its memories. The menu gets narrower and narrower, and peoples memories shrink correspondingly. Soon, you find yourself deejaying a Class of '63 reunion and getting chewed out by some mouthy drunk for playing the Beach Boys' Number 3 hit from 1963, "Surfin' U.S.A.," because as he remembers it, "the Beach Boys weren't even around when we were in high school!"
Maybe Paul Ray's right, and payola wasn't such a bad thing. Apparently, payola was the method by which the weird shit got snuck in the back door of commercial radio during rock & roll's golden age. If you ask him nicely, he can even show you the charts from a New Orleans station where his teenage showband's single was a "Pick to Click," getting valuable airplay alongside the Righteous Brothers and the like. "And it's all because our manager handed the guy our record and $25!"
If this is the case, how much does it cost to get the Yardbirds and Bo Diddley back into regular rotation?