ROTTING CORPSE, STINKING UP THE AIRWAYS…’
BY TOM DONAHUE
Donahue, seated in the middle of the picture above with Raechel (holding a mace
with ball and chain) on his lap, is currently the program director of KMPX-FM in
San Francisco. Donahue began his radio career in 1948 at WTIT in Charleston,
West Virginia. From there he went to disc jockey spots in Washington, D.C. and
Philadelphia. In 1961 he joined the staff o f KYA in San Francisco as "Big
Daddy Tom Donahue,” stayed on for three years during which period he became
the "dirty old man" of Top-40.
forsook his lowdown ways, formed a record label, signed the Great Society, of
which Grace Slick was then a member, presented several rock and roll concerts,
including the Beatles show at Candlestick Park. For a number o f reasons he
forsook all that too. Here are his views of the current radio scene.
For the past six months KMPX in San Francisco has been conducting a highly successful experiment in a new kind of contemporary music programming. It is a format that embraces the best of today's rock and roll, folk, traditional and city blues, raga, electronic music, and some jazz and classical selections. I believe that music should not be treated as a group of objects to be sorted out like eggs with each category kept rigidly apart from the others, and it is exciting to discover that there is a large audience that shares that premise.
Allen Freed is generally acknowledged to have been the first rock and roll disc jockey. He started in Cleveland, where he was known as Moondog, and later took his show to WINS in New York, where he gained national prominence which was to end in the payola probe of 1960. In the mid-fifties a number of chain broadcasters initiated what we know today as Top-40 radio programming.
As a rigidly formatted presentation of popular music, it proved extremely successful for a chain of stations in the Midwest owned by Todd Storz, and those in the Midwest and South operated by the Plough Corporation, a Southern pharmaceutical house.
The spectacularly successful concept of Top-40 radio spread quickly from city to city and almost overnight rock and roll music became an industry as record sales boomed. The stations were replete with jingles, sirens and explosions introducing the news and disc jockeys who work-ed at a frantic pace and never, never lost their jollity. Generally, the stations played about 100 current records, but otherwise the format was almost identical to what is heard today in every city in the nation.
Ten years later, the biggest deterrent to the progress, expansion, and success of contemporary music is that same so-called 'Top-40 radio.
Once, Top-40 stations dominated almost every radio market in the country. Now, their audience and their ratings have been on a steady decline for the past three years, during a period of time when the music itself is gaining ever increasing acceptance, as indicated by its sales popularity, the ballroom scenes all over the country, and the fact that rock entertainers are now an integral part of many variety entertainment programs on television.
The music has matured, the audience has matured, but radio has apparently proven to be a retarded child. Where once Top-40 radio reflected the taste of its audience, today it attempts to dictate it, and in the process has alienated its once loyal army of listeners.
There was a period when the so-called rock stations carefully scanned the sales figures from J local record stores and made an attempt to play the records the public was buying. This theory in itself was partially invalid, since it was based on the idea that people only wanted to hear what they could buy. What they bought were popular 45's. Three or four months after a record was a hit, they could purchase an LP that contained one or two of the group's hits and ten other songs that had failed to gain public acceptance as singles or had been hastily recorded to fill up an LP.
As time passed, the period between the release of a single and the release of an LP grew shorter, since companies found that if they waited three or four months their material might be “covered” by other groups, such as the Ventures, who had a string of Top Ten LPs covering other people's hits.
Then came the Beatles, whose explosive success changed the record scene, the radio scene, and, in many ways, changed the world. At KYA, where I was working at the time, we found ourselves playing six, eight, twelve Beatle cuts out of the fifty or so records we were playing on the air. There was a period of three or four months when the Beatles constituted about 25% of all the music being played on Top-40 radio stations. For the first time, Top-40 stations were playing cuts from LPs.
By the spring of 1965, American groups like the Byrds, following the example of the Beatles, were putting out LPs that were carefully produced from start to finish. Twelve polished cuts – no rejects, no fillers, no junk. The sale of LP's began to rival the sale of singles. When faced with the fact that the Byrds' LP, or the new Bob Dylan album was outselling the single records on their play lists, in most cases Top-40 programmers chose to ignore them rather than attempting to determine cuts to play.
To select cuts from an LP for airing on a Top-40 station meant making independent decisions, reflecting taste and a good ear--attributes that are sadly lacking in most radio programmers and station managements. (Many of the current programmers have risen to their positions through their success in sales rather than their programming or musical background.)
As a result, the bulk of the popular music radio programming in this country today is de-voted to absurd jingles that in their content are almost totally divorced from the kind of music the stations are playing, babbling hysterical disc jockeys who are trying to cram into a ten to fifteen second period the inane slogans that the program director has posted on the studio wall. The tempo is go! go! go!, the air is replete with such blather as "here comes another twin spin sound sandwich" and "here's a blast from the past, a moldy oldie that'll always last."
Somewhere in the dim misty days of yore, some radio statistician decided that regardless of chronological age, the average mental age of the audience was twelve-and-a-half, and Top-40 radio aimed its message directly at the lowest common denominator. The disc jockeys have become robots performing their inanities at the direction of programmers who have succeeded in totally squeezing the human element out of their sound, reducing it to a series of blips and bleeps and happy, oh yes, always happy, sounding cretins who are poured from bottles every three hours. They have succeeded in making everyone on the staff sound alike -asinine. This is the much coveted "station sound."
At the same time the station's top brass are telling the advertiser that they have the solid 18-45 year old audience that represents the bulk of the buying public, they incessantly woo a sub-teen audience and seemingly do everything they can to offend the musical taste and common sense of everyone in their audience over twelve.
Their selection of music is al-most invariably determined by what is happening in some other market. They will seldom take a chance on a new record, even when performed by a local group. Their measure is never excellence, but rather acceptance in some other market. Most stations today are playing from a list of approximately thirty records with seven to ten so-called extras.
Each week the stations call a selection of record stores and try to compute a top thirty. Most of them ignore the R&B stores. Few of them make any inquiry at all about LPs. If a record is selling that is more than seven inches in diameter, they don't care about it, don't want to hear it, and most assuredly are not going to play it.
Top-40 radio, as we know it today and have known it for the last ten years, is dead, and its rotting corpse is stinking up the airways.
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