Got The Fever

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Guest Post: The Hits Just Keep On Comin'

I often wondered what it was like for a DJ to have to hear the same songs over and over again. More specifically, can a DJ play the same songs shift after shift, day after day, through a whole season and ever have one or two become a great memory or a personal favorite? Especially in summer when so many of our memories are tied to cookouts, friends, end of school, vacations, parties, the beach and, most certainly, the soundtrack to the summer that is always on the radio?

I am fortunate that I have someone that I know online that is an actual DJ. J.A. Bartlett runs his own blog over at The Hits Just Keep On Comin', and I have mentioned him in this blog many times before. He is one of the major forces who left comments and emailed me personally, encouraged me to start up my own blog after guesting elsewhere. So, I wrote and asked him the very same questions I ask above – I wanted a perspective that is unique - a view from the voice over the airwaves. Fortunately, he has been kind and gracious enough to take time to write us of that experience right here on Got The Fever.

It is with great pride that I present for you, on this holiday weekend, the good DJ.

(Let me say before I begin: Few bloggers write about their music with as much passion as Kevin here at Got the Fever, so it’s both an honor and a challenge to be invited to take up space on this holiday weekend.)

The summer of 1986 was my last great radio summer, although it wasn’t my last summer in the business. I worked in Macomb, Illinois, at a typical mid-80s Top 40 station. We were slammin’ the hits, the ballads, the dance music, and the rockers - your Billy Oceans, your Janet Jacksons, your Van Halens - with a few album cuts thrown in at night, all aimed squarely at the students attending Western Illinois University. By that time, I’d been in the business four years, not counting college. I was the program director, and since late in 1985, the morning-show host. In fact, I was the only full-time DJ on the station, which was run the rest of the day by computer, with all the music on giant reels of tape.

As a DJ, I was largely self-taught. I’d gotten precious little outside guidance at my previous job, and I wasn’t getting any at this place, either. As a result, the morning show kind of blundered along. I played a lot of music, my newsman and I cracked wise, or tried to. I am guessing a lot of what Mitch and I thought was funny was probably fairly stupid. There were no ratings in our market, so we had no idea how many people were listening. But based on one small-town radio metric - are businesses buying advertising, and once they buy it, do they buy it again? - we felt pretty confident.

By summer, we had another metric we could rely on: The station was becoming an important presence around town. People who put on community events wanted us to be involved. We would provide promotional muscle in advance of an event, but our presence seemed to stamp the events with an extra degree of importance. That spring, the university put on an all-day rock festival on campus. I took the station vehicle and camped out all day, doing some on-air reports but mostly just being there. It was the first time in Macomb that people ever seemed impressed with my personal presence - the first time it became clear to me that I was a local celebrity. We promoted the infamous Hands Across America event held that Memorial Day weekend. It was cheesy and doomed to fail - we couldn’t even link Hands Across Macomb - but it sounded good on the radio nevertheless, as we broadcast from different spots around town and tried to get people to show up there to fill in the gaps. Sometime in July, Mitch and I did play-by-play at a celebrity cow-chip throwing contest. We took it as a golden opportunity to tease nearly every contestant, all of whom were prominent figures in the community, live on the radio. That we felt comfortable enough to do it was a measure of just how entrenched in the community our station (and Mitch and I) had become.

The Mrs. and I were rattling around in a big ol’ rented house, the first house we’d ever lived in together. (It had the first lawn I was ever responsible for, and a corner lot at that. I remember coming in one time after mowing it and telling her, “We must have children immediately,” so I’d have somebody to mow it for me.) She worked at the radio station, too. Working in the same office was never a problem for us; we’d met in a radio station, after all. We had a rule that what happened at home stayed at home, and it must have worked. There were several people around the office who didn’t know we were married. Many of our summer evenings were spent watching Cubs baseball on TV, although I didn’t usually see the end of night games: I suffered from what I call “morning man’s disease” - the inability to stay up much past 9:00, a consequence of getting up for work at 4:20 every morning. (I got up at 4:20 because 4:15 was just too early.) As a result, I treasured my Sundays, because they meant I could sleep decadently late - although that usually meant 7AM.

What about the music? It was the summer of movie songs: “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins and “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin, from Top Gun; “Glory of Love” by Peter Cetera from The Karate Kid II; “Live to Tell” by Madonna from At Close Range; “Love Touch” by Rod Stewart from Legal Eagles; “Modern Woman” by Billy Joel from Ruthless People; “Sweet Freedom” by Michael McDonald from Running Scared; “If You Leave” by OMD from Pretty in Pink, and likely a few more I’m forgetting. Individually, few of them are memorable. (Rather like the movies from which they came, although I remember liking Ruthless People and Running Scared.) Collectively, they form the backdrop on which memories of that summer are projected.

If forced to pick a favorite song from that summer, I’d have to cheat a little. “West End Girls” by the Pet Shop Boys had come out in the spring, but we kept playing it far into the summer, and it can still put me back in the living room of our big ol’ rented house with my radio station blasting from the stereo. But the song that brings back the summer most vividly is an entirely different thing. Summer songs are supposed to represent either the feeling of roaring down a highway with the windows open and the radio up (which “West End Girls” can do), or the sweetness of summer romance. This one is neither of those. It reminds me, instead, of the day-to-day work of a radio guy in the summer - a show every morning, the various tasks of programming a station all day, an event broadcast every weekend, those precious moments of leisure at home. It was the only life I’d ever seriously wanted for myself, and even though it had brought me to a nondescript college town in the middle of nowhere, that was merely the price I had to pay for the life I wanted to lead. Why “No One Is to Blame” should remind me of all this, I don’t know. It just does, and it has for 21 years now.

Pet Shop Boys: West End Girls (18)
Howard Jones: No One Is to Blame (13)

Addendum: I quickly looked up what stations might be in the general area and came up with this:


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