The last thing you’d expect to hear way down on the end of the dial was pop music.
Let me explain: back in the early 80s, back when FM radio was finally the preferred frequency, the stations were quite uniform in what you’d expect, at least in central Massachusetts. You could easily find whatever kind of music you liked, as you knew where on the dial it would be. The louder and more aggressive the sound, the higher up on the dial it would be. You’d hear the latest pop and dance music at 107.7 (usually some iteration of the well-used ‘KISS’ call letters), the hard rock of WAAF, and so on. By the time you hit 99 FM, things started quieting down. Adult listening, country and folk, classical, until you hit the nonprofit stations 92 and under.
There was that odd station or two, of course — at the end of 1985, the station out of Peterborough NH, WMDK, had adjusted its format to feature the AOR that some stations were taking on. I’d started listening to that station around winter of that year, as it catered to my widening tastes, mixing pop (INXS and ZZ Top) with more eclectic sounds (Split Enz, Squeeze).*
So when, on that late April evening, I was looking for something to listen to, I thought I’d check to see what they were playing. It must not have intrigued me, as I don’t remember stopping for long. It may have been some blues show or something that wasn’t holding my attention. After scouring the dial for something and getting nowhere, I thought I might make a last-ditch effort to find a jazz show, and if that failed, I’d call it a night.
What I didn’t expect, way down there, was a Clarence Clemens song.
“You’re a Friend of Mine” wasn’t even a recent song at that point. The track was the first single from the burly saxophonist’s solo album Hero, which had been released a good seven or so months previous, and the single had already vanished from the charts some months ago. And any song that left the charts was either dropped from the playlist like a stone and vanished from the pop world, or if it was lucky enough to be immensely popular, it would hover somewhere in light rotation for a good year or so.**
For this Clemens/Jackson Browne duet, it was more of a fanciful pop track, evoking the house-party sound of Clemens’ boss, Bruce Springsteen. For me, it was a pop song I kind of liked and hadn’t heard for some time. I was more fascinated that I was hearing it near 88 on the dial. I thought at first that this might have been another one of those AOR stations that I was discovering lately. [Around this same time, I’d discovered WRSI 95.3 out of Turners Falls*** and WCCC 106.9 out of Hartford (when it came in on clear days).] If this was indeed the case, I’d stick around for a bit to see what they followed it up with.
Well, how about nothing?
One thing I learned on as a radio listener and later as an assistant on-air tech is that the last thing any professional deejay wants to broadcast is dead air. It’s the radio equivalent of standing in front of a large audience, pantsless and without a podium, with absolutely nothing to say. And for the general manager, that’s wasted airtime that should have been used for advertising or at least a PSA. It’s lost revenue time.
I mean, it happens to deejays at some time or another. You forget to raise the volume level of the song you have queued, or you’ve misjudged the length of the song currently playing and haven’t prepared the next song yet. **** But it’s still embarrassing (and costly), so there’s always a bit of juggling going on.
Another thing I’m familiar with is the sign-off of radio stations. Most stations nowadays bypass this as many of them have become 24/7 broadcasters (partly thanks to global listeners tuning online around the world, but also due to the many stations now owned by the few corporations — another commentary I’ll skip for now), but back in the 80s there were a handful of stations, many of them on the AM or low-watt FM dial, who only broadcasted during daylight hours or into the early evening. At the top of the hour, they’d fade out any music and read out a legal ID, or play the prerecorded cart, stating that they were ‘at the end of the broadcast day’, read out their wattage, where their antenna was, and so on. Sort of like ending credits to a movie or a TV show, in a way. After a few seconds, if you were still listening, you’d hear the station switch itself off, leaving us with nothing but glorious white-noise static.
So. When “You’re a Friend of Mine” ended that night around ten in the evening, followed by silence, I’d totally expected a flustered deejay to come on the air and nervously laugh at his idiocy and offer apologies left and right. Then, after a few more seconds, I thought they were doing this very thing and had forgotten to turn the mic up. [This I’ve done many a time as well in my short radio career.] Then, a few seconds after that, I figured this might have been the end of their broadcast day and the legal ID hadn’t kicked off. Or it had, and that hadn’t been turned up either. [I’ve done that as well.] And after a minute, no static.
What I hadn’t expected was just another song.
No flustered deejay, no commercial or PSA, just another song entirely. And a wholly different soundat that. Clemons’ pop-rock aesthetic was nowhere to be heard. Instead I was hearing a loud, chunky guitar playing fast and easy barre chords. Some sort of low-quality noise that was professionally produced, but sounded far from professional in musicianship. Not that I was complaining, mind you. This was just…different. It wasn’t trying to be perfect. The singer was on key only about half the time; the lyrics, when they were intelligible, may have been about having a shitty day, or just drinking one’s cares away, I’m really not sure.
What was this…?
* – I believe WMDK was going through its transformation while broadcasting, as there would be live deejays playing tracks, but other shifts would have pre-recorded bumpers. This I remember well, as they’d play my favorite INXS song at the time, “What You Need”, but for about a month and a half they played the voice-over talent mispronouncing the band as “In-EX-uss”.
** – See Duran Duran, who would remain a staple of pop radio until 1990 or so when their Liberty album failed to garner any interest in the US. They’d be in hiding until early 1993 when their second self-titled album (aka The Wedding Album) was released to critical acclaim.
*** – Radio trivia: Rachel Maddow used to work at this station way back in the day, and I remember listening to her on the morning show every now and again.
**** – Or, as I’ve had happen many times during the olden days of cart machines, the prerecorded cart (it looks like one of those 8-track tape cartridges and is essentially a looped tape of commercial length) having been stopped rather than cued, or the cart machine simply isn’t working. I am so jealous that current radio stations have everything set up digitally on software, and all you need do is make sure everything is programmed correctly.