Pat Holiday: The Call Of the Wild

After hauling way too many boxes of air checks, albums, and radio stuff back and forth across North America I finally embarked on the way too daunting task of digitizing it all.

As I’m doing it and listening, so many memories flood back. The air checks are mostly un-scoped with all the music, jingles, commercials, news, etc. included.

They’re two-hour slices of history exactly as it was back as far as 1966. Many are of me along the way but many are tapes of the big jocks of each era, Chicago, Boston, LA, SF, NYC, Detroit, Toronto and so forth.

So strange to hear the shootings at Kent State in real time, people protesting the Vietnam War and Cambodia bombings. Day one of the first invasion of Iraq, and the second invasion too… and so many other historical moments as they were happening.

All on jock shows, not news shows.

What’s fascinating, and I’ll relate this all to today in a second, is how you can hear radio and the music on it, change through the years. What’s also fascinating is I can pull out an air check of WRKO or WLS circa 1969 and drop the jock presentation over the music of today and it’s pretty darn close. Not a lot has changed in almost 50 years.

On some stations the jocks are definitely kind of corny or cheesy (typically on the stations that got crushed by the ‘new’ sound). On others, their pace, wording, delivery is pretty much today. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad that the biz hasn’t really evolved much. Hey, maybe Bill Drake got it ALL right when he invented his Boss radio in the 60’s. We still do it all pretty much verbatim today regardless of format. Most station’s jocks from 2015 sound pretty close to CHUM AM jocks in 1975.  You just remember it differently. I certainly did.

Music is a different story.

On Canadian stations you can hear CanCon come in and it’s amazing change from being fairly awful (most songs, not all) in the beginning to so excellent now. Of course that makes sense because in 1970 there were few studios and few people with experience in them. Since then every segment of the Canadian music biz has gotten light years better, especially the artists.

In the 60’s you can hear incredibly wide station playlists. British rock, POP, Motown, MOR songs, country, bopper hits. The Top 40 formats? Full on anything. As the tapes roll through the 70’s and 80’s they’re still pretty wide but starting to close the gap because of A/C and AORs concentrating on just their genre. Then of course there’s the 90’s with lots of splintering but actually not a huge amount of success from most of the splintered stations. Jump to now and there’s only really a handful of formats again. CHR/Top 40 rules, Classic Hits/Classic Rock (basically oldies of one form or the other), Country, and Urban. Sort of like the 60’s and 70’s all over again except then there were no dedicated oldies stations. Rock? Alternative? Alt Oldies? Dead or back of the pack mostly.

It’s always struck me that the hits are the hits period, and if done right, CHR will always rule. Maybe through the late 90’s to around 2005 everyone was too hip for the room, or all blindly followed some ‘experts’ idea that radio stations needed to be like KFC and only serve one thing.  I’m thinking Taylor Swift would’ve never been given a CHR shot in the early 2000’s, and that would’ve been a shame.

But here’s the question, or perhaps the observation from all these tapes. And if you’re a PD or a jock wanting to make a statement, perhaps an alternative path to big success.

As I’m wading through 50 years of the best of the best station’s air checks and jocks, every once in a while there’s a blip on the horizon. They came like every 7-10 years or so. Bill Drake’s Boss Radio 1964, Buzz Bennet’s KCBQ 1972, Scott Shannon’s Z100 in NY 1983, and Mike Joseph’s Hot Hits stations which stormed Philly in 1981 and the rest of the country by 88.

You may not be old enough to remember Z100 do the impossible in New York City.

Worst to first in 74 days. Not weeks or months, days.

Like some wide orbit comet, it’s been 30 years since the last one showed up.

So, what did they do?

Each was different for their own time but in essence they upped the intensity bar about 200% instantly.

The last ones were called “Hot Hits”.

They did Extreme CHR radio. It’s hard to describe sound without hearing it, but let me give it a shot. 2 second shotgun jingles that virtually scream, and a lot of them. Jocks that are UP, really really really up. With crazy names. When the mic’s open they’re out of the gate talking fast, in short bursts, punctuating inflections, over intros, over the music at the end of songs (rarely over dead air), over cranking music beds, with production drops falling everywhere as they get to the ends of liners etc that need punctuating, and back to specific UPTEMPO jingles (like weather, winners, ID’s) to get into a song.  Production on steroids - fast/pushing/ballsy/screaming beds/drums/explosions, jingles on steroids, jocks on steroids, music on steroids too in a sense, because you don’t hear many slow songs played. Fast easy contests, screaming winners, fast jingles, crazed - fun - up jocks… well, you get the idea.

Being real, and conversational, and exposing your inner self to the audience wasn’t on the agenda. You know how you hear people preaching that all the time? “Be yourself and be real on the air?” Nada. These stations we’re throwing full on show business in your face. Pretty much mostly fantasy and hype.

Sort of like Monday Night Football, or the Republican debates. They’re show business now too.

But I digress.

They were hugely successful when they appeared each time, and stayed that way until either the competitors bulked UP towards them or they morphed down in presentation and became just another station in the pack. Z100 is still there and successful, but isn’t as hot as it was when it launched and actually became #1 in New York. (To be fair, time tames everything. "Satisfaction" by the Stones used to ROCK. Now, it’s soft rock.)

Hot Rocking, Flame Throwing XXXX used to be their collective battle cry. They lived up to the description.

Maybe it became too hard to find jocks that could do that kind of radio and keep up that pace. Three hours in one of those control rooms was intense to say the least.

To put it in perspective: Take any CHR in this country right now and one of these anomaly stations would make them all seem to become an A/C almost overnight. The difference then, and I think right now too.. is stark.

Now you may be thinking, the public wouldn’t like that stuff now at all. My god it’s 2016.

Jingles? Screaming hyper jocks? Talking all over the intros and extras? And so forth…

On the other hand, I’m sure that was the thinking all those other times those stations appeared. Maybe we’re still too hip for the room?

Or, somewhere in a down and out radio station with nothing to lose there’s some kid PD who thinks he’s come up with a whole new idea for a smoking format.

And maybe that overdue comet will get another fly by.



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