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Friday, March 19, 2010

music, radio, oldies (Jeannie C. Riley, "Harper Valley PTA"

After 25 years of listening to Oldies stations and the same 25 tunes, I have begun to ask what the little Nash Rambler am I doing listening to the same songs for so long? How many times of hearing Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon" does it take before I want to shout "Hey, you are ruining a good song by playing it every 15 minutes!" If I knew 25 years ago I'd be hearing "Rhiannon" every time I turned on the radio for the rest of my life, I would have ripped out my car radio long ago, and worse yet, played one-way frisbee into a bonfire with my entire record collection.Too much of a good thing is still too much. But let me tell you about what radio was like before it became too much: Ray Stevens, Led Zepellin, Credence Clearwater Revival, Herb Alpert, Tammy Wynette, Jeannie C. Riley, Mick Jagger, Ray Charles, Diana Ross and Roger Miller. And yours truly, who worked in news on the radio on and off at four stations until the early 1990's.

AM radio in the late 60's and 70's was a tail-gate party to the game of life. Fans from all the human leagues' different teams would gather to dance and sing, get to know each other, tell stories and sometimes laugh, sometimes cry. AM radio welcomed everyone, British invaders, soul, odd little comedy singers to country and international balladeers. It was decidedly low-brow and you were welcome in your dashiki, your boots and jeans, sandals and shorts, or beat-up sneakers and raggedy blue jean cutoffs. Radio was on in the car, at home in the kitchen, in the den on the stereo and by the bed where you listened late at night to whining signals carrying stations from across the country as they skipped across the airwaves, caught by your radio's receiver. There were transistor radios the size of a shoe box that you could take with you on picnics or to the public swimming pool where music buzzed in and out of your ears like bees. You might hear Ray Coniff's singers, or Ray Charles or a novelty song from Ray Stevens, whose "Guitarzan" and other silly songs punctuated the more serious love songs that lived on your favorite station. Frank Sinatra sang next to the Beatles, who were followed by Elvis, Diana Ross or Barbra Streisand. Country songs were not known as country, they were just songs. Rock, soul, blues or French, Spanish, German or Japanese hits were just songs, too. The party was open and all were welcome, and one station would play them all.

There were songs that told stories. Lonely boys jumped off bridges into southern rivers. There were short ditties about polka dot bikinis and little Nash Ramblers. There were long, eight minute mini-concerts about women in yellow cotton dresses and melting cakes in the park. Extended solos from guitarists were common, and the world's longest on-air drum set from "Inagottadavita"(In the Garden of Eden?). There were songs that made you cry for teens that died in car crashes or for your nation's murdered leaders, Abraham, Martin and John. There were songs that lifted, with bells (Sonny and Cher), tore at your heart with yells (Janis Joplin) and made you blush about no-tell motels (most country performers).

FM arrived in the early 70's to South Texas. It featured music from full album sides played with no commercials or interruptions whatsoever. It almost sounded like you were listening to the music at home on the stereo, a stereo that was twice as large as the television. The markets began to break down into segments and fragments when FM arrived with its superior audio technology. Richer sounds were carried in the richer sound waves, but if you drove across the state, you'd lose the frequency and have to search for another station.

Radio was a good party, with a good 20 year run, and like all parties, it came to an end. Radio stations, which were owned by local owners, began to make serious profits, which were attractive to investors. Station chains began growing. With the new chains came cuts at the local level and centralized programming (that's what investors wanted, more profits). These new programs targeted the market's sub-groups. Now there were stations whose targets were teens and young 20's. These stations aimed at reaching sub-groups in the lucrative youth market, playing all hip-hop, all metal, all modern country. There were still the "oldies" and "classic country" stations, but the first-string players were gunning for the large youth market who were free-spenders buying new clothes, music, concert tickets and eating out frequently.

Radio's tail-gate parties of the 80's, 90's and beyond were smaller, tightly-managed affairs where songs were introduced to the nation only by big promoters and record companies. Gone for good were the local singers and bands who broke onto the airwaves with an original sound and talent in one city to catch that rare ride across the country to stardom. San Antonio had the Royal Jesters, Sunny and the Sunliners, and the most famous, the faux-British combo, The Sir Douglas Quintet, whose Mexican-origin members tried hard to pass as Welsh or Black Irish in the era of all-things-British-are-better.

The national sound was an experiment in management that made money quickly but soon bored most music buffs. It ultimately failed. National began to sound vanilla and worse than that, contrived, pre-packaged, unoriginal, like "Dancin' in the Street" killed by a Broadway choreographer.

Another reason segmented radio failed was that technology, again, would enter uninvited to transform the party forever. The four and eight track tape decks fitted into cars started the trend that made every driver his or her own music programmer. With the radio turned off, the decks morphed into factory-installed cassette players, CD players, MP-3 players. Then came the I-pod and satellite. No commercials or chattering from DJ's, and, mercifully, the end of the pre-set selection from someone in New Jersey.

Today, take a road trip with me and you'll hear Shakira, Eydie Gourmet and the Trio Los Panchos, Jeannie C. Riley and Grace Slick along with Conway Twitty, Jimmy Hendrix, Roy Orbison, the Beatles, Juan Gabriel and Cole Porter. I'm the programmer and the songs are from "mi epoca" (my era). However, I do wonder, sometimes if the radio race to market segmentation had never happened, and if the tailgate party had stayed open to everyone, what the party would sound like today. Would my tastes be more modern? Would they be more international in flavor?

I know for sure segmentation took some music away, and gave me more (much, much more) of the music that I liked. But is that necessarily good? Even if too much of a good thing is too much, I won't rip my radio out of my car or build a record album bonfire because that bonfire won't burn. I love radio too much to believe it's failed me forever.

I still hope to hear new tunes that I can appreciate and not flinch with embarrassment at hearing lyrics with over-the-top commercialization of sex and intimacy from genres as varied as pop and country to hip-hop and rap. Any recommendations, fellow music lovers?


  1. Before he died Ron Houston said "I can't believe we had so much fun." We can do everything we want on the net. The special trick is to have fun.

  2. Ron Houston said before he died, "I can't believe that we had so much fun." We can do everything that you wish for on the net. The secret is to have fun!

  3. Ah. Linda! I remember as a teen in GA listening late at night to bounced radio signal from Cincinnati, where they played songs that we could not hear in the bible belt. The sounds waved in and out and we would gather in the school halls the next day "Did you hear that!?" What rebels we were! listening to forbidden music and sharing lyrics with our friends.

  4. Wow, I never knew this. How amazing. Were the songs from Detroit, or from Great Britain, what songs were "forbidden"?

  5. Mostly what is called "root music" these days, what was sung in honky tonks and road houses, but the records could not be played on the local stations because of references to sex and drugs. I can't remember off hand any specific titles.