Sunday, June 20, 2004

Rockin' Out
Changing the subject on a day that's shaping up to be all Bill Clinton, all the time:

I have been spending lots of time at Reelradio.com lately, a website that archives classic airchecks from the golden age of Top 40 radio. A couple of definitions for the non-radio geek: an aircheck is a recording of a radio show, and the golden age of Top 40 radio was approximately the mid 1960s to the late 1970s. Top 40 was hit radio, playing the most popular songs over and over, generally on the AM band, and its greatest stations were in the country's biggest cities. (The classic Top 40 I listened to was all from Chicago.) This is the radio I was weaned on, the kind of radio I wanted to do--and the kind of radio that was pretty much gone by the time I got behind my first live microphone.

Radio has changed a lot since then. For example, stations are more narrowly targeted to a specific slice of the audience today--if you are the kind of person who listens to album rock, you won't mind hearing "Enter Sandman" by Metallica at 10:30 in the morning. The classic Top 40 era equivalent of a song like that would never have been on the air at that hour. Because there were fewer stations in those days, audiences were broader and less homogenous than they are today. Many classic Top 40 stations varied their music mix throughout the day, going softer and lighter during middays when the audience was thought to be older and more female, and rocking out at night when the kids were listening. This is known as "dayparting." Many stations do a limited amount of it today, but not on the scale of the classic Top 40 era.

The broader nature of the classic Top 40 audience also meant that stations ran more news. It can be surprising to listen to an aircheck from, say, 1969, and hear a five-minute newscast every hour and twice an hour in the early morning and late afternoon. This practice was going the way of high-button shoes by the time I got into radio in 1979. Today, most music stations run a little bit of news in the morning, but it takes an event the size of September 11 to get news on at any other time of the day.

Radio personalities are a lot more constrained now than they were then. During the classic era, every announcer was encouraged to express himself (and it was almost always "him" in those days). The most successful personalities were always bigger than life, cooler than life--genuinely outsized. Today, most radio stations muzzle their personalities' personalities after 10AM--DJs are told to just shut up and play the music. As a result, most stations' listeners can tell you who hosts the morning show, but they'd be hard-pressed to name one or two of the station's other announcers.

So anyway, here's a list of five classic Top 40 DJs who influenced me once I got into radio myself:

1. Larry Lujack: During the classic era, Lujack was the top jock in Chicago, bouncing between mornings and afternoons at both WLS and WCFL, the two top-40 flamethrowers that duked it out for supremacy from the mid 60s to the mid 70s. He could do more with less than almost anybody on the radio, thanks to his dry, acerbic wit. You couldn't imitate him, but you could be inspired by him, and I was.

2. Bob Dearborn: Dearborn was the anti-Lujack--completely pleasant, thoroughly professional, yet cool in his own way. What I took from Dearborn was his professionalism. His shows were smooth and seamless--you'd rarely hear the kind of starts and stops that were a part of Lujack's style. Everything got done on time the way it was supposed to, but you never got the sense that Dearborn was scrambling to get it all in.

3. Fred Winston: Another guy who was impossible to imitate (which raised eyebrows when he opened a consulting service for DJs in the 1980s), Winston was probably the most drop-dead funny personality I knew in the classic era. Whenever I tried to do humor on the radio, I was unconsciously trying to live up to Winston's example (and, of course, failing). It didn't hurt that he had one of those impossibly resonant DJ voices, which made his absurd bits even funnier.

4. Kris Erik Stevens: Speaking of resonant DJ voices, I was kidding around with The Mrs. the other night, doing my own classic Top 40 DJ voice. (Don't ask why.) The voice, it occurs to me, is basically my impersonation of Kris Stevens, who was the quintessential nighttime guy. He was capable of cranked-up energy when his station was rockin' out, but could also cuddle up and whisper in your ear when playing a ballad.

5. Bob Collins: I never heard Collins in his top 40 days, only later on Chicago's WGN, where he did call-in shows that were liberally spiced with music and comedy. What I learned from Collins was comfort--nobody ever sounded more at home on the air. I always tried for (and rarely achieved) the kind of casual, making-it-up-as-we-go-along ambiance that was so natural for him.

Lujack and Winston are still on the air in Chicago. Lujack co-hosts a morning show via satellite from New Mexico and Winston does afternoons on an oldies station. Dearborn hosted the national NightTime America show in the 80s and has been living in Canada in recent years; Stevens still does voiceover work nationwide; Collins died in a plane crash about five years ago. But they're all still in their prime, along with lots of other radio legends, at Reelradio.com.

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