Sunday, April 23, 2017

Playing the Top of the Pops and The Cream of the Crop - April 1, 1961

As I sat down to write this week, a countdown show was just starting on the radio. As I was listening to the countdown to the number one song, I was reminded of just how many genres were represented. Just look at the countdown # 24. Adam Wade - Take Good Care Of Her, # 23. Lawrence Welk – Calcutta, # 22. Cathy Jean And The Roommates - Please Love Me Forever, # 21. Del Shannon – Runaway, # 20. Johnny Maestro - Model Girl, # 19. Buzz Clifford - Baby Sittin' Boogie, # 18. Johnny Burnette - Little Boy Sad, # 17. Clarence 'Frogman' Henry - I Don't Know Why (But I Do), # 16. Ben E. King - Spanish Harlem, # 15. Kokomo - Asia Minor, # 14. Bobby Darrin - Lazy River, # 13. The Everly Brothers - Ebony Eyes, # 12. Brook Benton - Think Twice, # 11 .Floyd Cramer - On The Rebound, # 10. Carla Thomas - Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes), # 9. Connie Francis - Where The Boys Are, # 8. String-A-Longs – Wheels, 7. # The Everly Brothers - Walk Right Back, # 6. The Marcels - Blue Moon, # 5. Marty Robins - Don't Worry, # # 4. Jorgen Ingmann & His Guitar – Apache, # 3. The Shirelles - Dedicated To The One I Love, # 2. Chubby Checker – Pony Time and # 1. Elvis Presley – Surrender.

Everything’s there; big band, ballads, rock and roll, Soul/R&B, dance tunes, instrumentals, teenage tragedy songs and even a specialty tune. There were two songs by the Everly Brothers, a song by a girl group. There was even a song by Lawrence Welk and one by a guy who sang like a boy, a girl and a frog! No chance of a burn out listening to this list.

When the seventies came along, it seems to me that radio stations started to create music smokestacks along genres. There were fewer cross over tunes (country / pop / rock), (blues / rock), fewer instrumentals in any genre and everything being played on any given station started to sound more and more alike. There were your rock stations, your country stations, your soul and R&B stations each with their own distinct playlist. Sure there were still crossover songs but there were fewer of them. Some genres, traditional blues, Chicago and New Orleans jazz, rockabilly and bluegrass, all of which had representation in the form of the songs played on the rock and roll stations no longer had outlets in most markets.

Unfortunately the local DJs who tied all this great variety of music would soon follow and stations were drawn into larger and larger conglomerates and the focus changed from the service to the community to the bottom line of the monthly ledger. It was less expensive to purchase an automation system and run it instead of paying that guy or gal to sit in the control room and spin those records. The automation systems that came along in the 70s were mechanical monsters with large reel to reel tapes for the music and cart machines for the public service announcements, commercials and station IDs. It became more “relevant” to the centrally located station programmers to concentrate on the one genre with which they were most familiar.

Things improved with the advent of automation systems that ran on relatively inexpensive desktop computers and played songs from files on their hard drives. Now a DJ could “voice track” a 3 hour show in 45 minutes or so. It sounded more “live” than the old mechanical systems and as a result it put more DJs out of work. Through the Internet, the morning drive DJ in Miami could be the afternoon drive DJ in Minneapolis.

But, “voice – tracking” does not sound quite right. True it can be used to seamlessly back sell the song that is ending and then walk up and hit the post (the moment the singer starts singing) of the song that is starting. But when a live DJ does that, he beat matches the music that is playing under his or her voice with their delivery’s cadence. The very best DJs can interact with the elements of the music under them in a way no computer can today. So when I hear a “voice – tracked” show it becomes painfully clear that automation has control of the show. To me, that makes it less inviting. I’d much rather listen to a master of the art ply his or her trade.

Now, I’m far from being a Luddite with a distaste of everything technical. There are a lot of things that computers and the Internet can do to make radio better. For example, when an automation system is run in “DJ Assist Mode” it can help by counting down to the “post” on the screen or by searching its database for that song that was just requested among other things. The amount of mechanical work the DJ has to do during the show is greatly decreased. It can even keep the performance rights logs of the songs that are being played, something we used to have to do by hand.

I don’t think we will ever see the day where radio was all “mom and pop” owned stations each with a cadre of local live DJs again but there are signs that the current corporate structure of radio may be changing. If that happens the millennials may discover how much fun can be had listening to the local DJ spinning the tunes for “All the cool cats, and all the hot kitties!” Oh MY!

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