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A History of Radio and Content – Part IV: The 1980s

It is time for the final installment of Chris Stroffolino’s history of radio and content. Part I focused on the cylinder to 45 RPM years. Part II continued with the rise of the Jukebox through Top 40 rankings. Part III explored the development of FM music radio. Part IV brings us to the 1980s.

It’s easier to talk analytically and critically about a time you didn’t live through. Just as it’s easier for me to know exact dates of baby-boomer milestones more than the baby boomers themselves, it’s hard to talk about the history of radio in the 1980s because I lived through it. Certainly my grandmother isn’t going to see her reflection in RCA’s buyout of Victor when she first heard the radio as a 7 year old in 1928.

Or it’s too heavy to think about, like why it’s so hard to answer the simple question, “what do your mother die of?” I think my sister is willing to say “cancer,” but at the time it was such a mess of misdiagnosis, starting from when she was 7 years old and she had a convulsion and pointed to her kidney and the doctor put her on Xanax and told her to stop eating chocolate. Nine years later, when she lost her kidney, another doctor said, “we could’ve saved it had we caught it when you were 7.”

My mom’s subsequent medical history of misdiagnosis, from lupus to sarcoidosis to beryllium-osis, is at least as complex as the headache-inducing corporate maneuvering that characterized the music business in the 1980s much more than music or even Madonna did—and in both cases, we were questioning the wisdom of the highly paid professionals who were making diagnoses and offering treatment. In the case of radio programmers, we even began to question their intention. Sure, a great song would be played here and there—but it felt to many of us like the people controlling the record labels and the radio stations hated music.

In the 1980s, the corporate radio and record industry couldn’t have been further away from me. I had a few friends in the 80s who had managed to get entry level jobs in radio broadcasting not long after they graduated high school. I admired and envied them, and eagerly asked them to tell me their stories. It was totally color-coded playlists by them. AM-FM; it didn’t matter. They couldn’t even tell a joke. There was still some hope held out that if they worked at it tenaciously, they would somehow, someday have some say in the playlists—if the station can just survive this little rough patch. This is what the young Glenn Beck thought on his Connecticut oldies station.

So, travel light. Don’t think about settling down. Move to Richmond, VA. Change your last name to “Drake” for WDUK. Then Frederick, MD. Change your last name to Brill for the oldies station, but don’t play Little Richard. Call Casey Kasem and tell a story about a dog who died while listening to “Tutti Frutti;” maybe he’ll play Pat Boone’s version. Move to Jackson, Mississippi. Learn to love formats you knew little about, or were skeptical about in this anti-septic, specialized and gerrymandered time. And don’t play Merle Haggard on the Contemporary Country station. Invoking fear of payola, the new station owners and record labels had created a climate in which anyone who might actually seem to love or even like music was looked upon suspiciously.

Sure, it had its advantages. My DJ friends got to meet and greet listeners, and be the “music man” (as long as they didn’t choose their own music) and hand out balloons at car & soda shows like a minor league mascot or a woman dressed up as an Excedrin Bottle handing out samples in front of a post-office on Tax Day. And it paid; it wasn’t like I was doing any better. Yes, I had an audience as a free-format college radio station DJ and daily held court at the campus center’s acoustic baby grand, but I was going into debt to be the first person in Reading, Pennsylvania to play The Godfather’s snarling “we’re living under a false economy” on a ten-watt radio station.

Within a few years even these small-town nomadic apparatchik kind of Disk Jockeys my friends had become would largely be replaced by automated simulcasts from a few “major league” cities. Advances in satellite technology allowed new radio networks to grow, and just as in the “golden age of radio networks,” this flattened out the sound. Even these big-city DJs didn’t have much personality (except for Howard Stern, who increasingly moved away from music during this period). And, given the format fragmentation (paradoxically due to ownership consolidation), each station only had a small segment of the audience, and there’s less dialogue between musical genres, and thus less integral connection to listeners and local sponsors. The FM bands had originally been opened up in the 1960s in order to prevent simulcasts, automation under the Non-Duplication Rule. Now, there was more of that than ever.

14. Rick Allen: The Last DJ (WYSP)

It wasn’t that I stopped listening; there was just less choice, and my habits had to change. Even in its debased form, there was still the occasional surprise and, if it sucked, there was the cassette as a fallback. In 1990 Philadelphia, I busked with a Casio on Rittenhouse Square, winning over young ladies with Violent Femmes and Replacement songs while the lunch-hour hard hats sang “Like A Rolling Stone” with me. A Homeless guy requested “She’s Gone,” and was patient enough while I figured out the chords; he sang a mean John Oates. Across the street from my usual spot was the skyscraper that held WYSP-94.1 FM. I had long since given up my professional DJ aspirations, but I can’t say the thought of trying to win one of those DJS over didn’t cross my mind. “Look,” Julie whispered, “There’s Michael Tierson; play “Time” by Pink Floyd; he likes that. Damn; he just ducked into the alley.” We knew it was absurd to try; he was a corporate yes-man by now.

It had been less than ten years earlier when I turned on WYSP at midnight and could hear him play “B-Movie” by Gil Scott Heron, a song whose lyrics are more relevant than ever (if you’re into relevance), if not punk music. WYSP was the classic corporate rock station, and pumped Howard Stern in from New York to compete with the equally corporate “Morning Zoo” on WMMR 93.3 FM. Even if I had been better than Elton John (I’d say Jerry Lee Lewis, but they didn’t play Jerry Lee Lewis, yet alone James Booker), the thought of trying to convince any of those DJs of anything wasn’t going to happen. Maybe in NYC stuff like that happens if it’s 1970, but not in Philly in 1990. The only local bands I remember those stations really trying to push were The Hooters and Robert Hazard, both of whom are probably most famous for writing Cyndi Lauper songs.

These bands were clearly geared for a suburban audience the corporate experts told the stations to target. Draw a little local mustache on the corporate Mona Lisa. Once Candy & I saw the Dead Milkmen play at one of WYSP’s affiliated clubs: The Empire Rock Club, located way up in Northeast Philadelphia, the whitest and most-suburban part of Philly.Even though their station was located in Rittenhouse Square, which was beautiful and busker friendly in 1990, WYSP always had that suburban placelessness about it. It was afraid of the city, perhaps because it associated it with AM-Music; not to say they were racist or anything (certainly no more than the punk vs. hip-hop segregated square off).

It may seem cheesy to you, but I was very very happy when The Dead Milkmen (who WYSP despised) made a mockery of playing in this club; they kept on pointing at the giant WYSP and Hooters logo, yelling “The Hooters Suck! The Hooters Suck!” and then played a beautifully sloppy heartbreaking cover of “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round.”

Taste aside, Frank Zappa made an excellent point in contrasting the basic 60s music industry paradigm with the basic 80s music paradigm. Many more of those old guys in the early and mid 1960s were willing to take chances and experiment than the younger record execs in the 1980s; even if the latter had started as fans of free-format experimentation, they were much worried about the “man upstairs” and the short-term bottom line.

There was one exception on WYSP. Rick Allen had the 2-6AM slot; he was the best commercial free-form DJ I’ve ever listened to, and the last. When I hear that Tom Petty “Last Deejay” song, I think of Rick Allen. Rick Allen was great especially when I was listening on my walkman and couldn’t get the weaker college radio stations. There was a palpable sense of community, even though he didn’t play much new music either. His range of music was much more eclectic than what WYSP had become, and he was very popular with a night-time crowd; he’s take requests from many people with night jobs, from truckers on the road to supermarket stockers. I had a night job watching TV for money at the time (Video Monitoring Service), and got to listen to him while I was transcribing the news for corporate TV PR-firms. You could call Rick Allen up and rap about music when he was playing a 7 minute plus tune, but he’s play a lot of short ones too.

He filled in a lot of gaps in my musical knowledge, especially about early 1950s Chicago blues, but also played a lot of psychedelic funk and blocks of John Prine, The Left Banke and Michael Nesmith. He rarely played new music, but I had college radio and the Philly punk scene for that. He was always getting threatened to be fired by the management of WYSP. Sometimes he just wouldn’t be on the air. Other times, he’d be on—but there was no magic. They were punishing him with a playlist, and he dutifully went through the show with no comment (you could feel his pain and tell he was seething). Word got out though, and many of us wrote and called the station spontaneously, enough to get him back on. This must have happened at least 5 or 6 times in the years I listened to him. He always seemed to come back; but I later found out the radio station screwed him big time. I still suspect race had something to do with it, his taste in music was almost perfectly integrated, during a time of heightened re-segregation of the music business.

15. Rebirth of National Networks

When I say commercial music radio died in the 1980s, I mean as a two-way medium of communication. It lost something vitally human, but in some ways radio was more alive than ever. Corporations always like to undervalue the thing they want to buy; The growth of FM-Commercial radio was in part designed to get music off of AM radio and re-gain the control over content they had during the so-called “Golden Age of Radio.” FM was used to kill AM. Of course, no one said “kill” as the bulldozers swept the remains of the department store away. They said “open up new markets.” The old downtowns that succeeded lured shiny new office building and folded up at 6PM. By the end of the 1980s, AM-radio, like the new city, was coming back too. While AM radio may seem a ruins for music fans, there is more money than ever being made on AM-radio, albeit for less people. The fact that this model has been sustained for roughly a quarter of a decade makes it rival radio’s “golden age.”

The rise of AM-talk radio in the 1980s largely grew out of consumer dissatisfaction with the loss of dialogue they felt with music radio, as it moved from AM to FM (especially after the decline in popularity of CB culture, whose two-way interactive format had helped ease the pain of transition to the more impersonal format of FM music radio during the 1970s). Even today,AM radio remains more populist and accessible to poorer folks (in old beat-up F-150s). It’s more down to earth, has a stronger signal than many FM stations. Part of the attraction of AM-Talk has as much to do with the mere fact of the AM-Band as it did with the content. Whatever one thinks of Rush Limbaugh’s agenda, he understood that the medium is the message and he gained support for his ideologies by speaking to an audience in several codes. While commercial music radio was now trying to make it seem like IT (whatever it was) was happening somewhere else—specifically, on an LP or CD, on TV or at a big sports arena show, Limbaugh made you feel like it was happening here and now; he’d even talk to you if you get through.

His target audience felt left behind by the so-called technological progress that caused an exodus to FM-radio “upgrades” (and beyond to the world wide web), and he applied this basic dissatisfaction to the political world—those big city Democrats and the liberal coastal elite who think they’re better than you; their notions of “progress” are causinginflation and unemployment, ripping apart the family, the local communities; they’re even trying to shut-down AM radio by invoking something called “The Fairness Doctrine” (whose repeal, under Reagan, was also a factor in Limbaugh’s success). Limbaugh and others gave a political “local habitation and a name” to the feeling of discontent his listeners felt, even if they couldn’t or wouldn’t express it themselves. A lot of Limbaugh or Mike Malloy fans may have initially been looking for something more like Wolfman Jack.

Limbaugh channeled a deep, and justified, feeling of distrust with so-called “technological progress” into an activist polemic against social progress. He took a more apolitical conservatism (“if the AM radio’s not broken, why fix it?”) and applied it to the realm of social and electoral politics. Despite masquerading as a “conservative,” Limbaugh was also pulling a fast one on his conservative listeners; he himself was a product of the corporate-owned national syndication that cut into the local conservative talk show hosts, as the HMOs curtailed the autonomy of individual doctors, and as Starbucks & Wal-Mart could muscle locally owned-shops out of business. Limbaugh did at least as much to fragment the conservative movement that he ostensibly spoke to, and/or for, as any Clinton Democrat.

Talk radio was, and still is, subordinate to national TV networks; whether conservative or liberal, it was a glorified advertisement for TV’s official reality; the growth of nationally syndicated sports talk networks grew along with spiritual infotainment networks. Since there was now much less music on the radio (especially new music), one might think that the major record labels’ profits would have suffered during this time. But the major labels no longer needed to piggy back on the radio stations. Sales grew; accountants still consider the early 1980s fondly as a boom economy.

In the early 1980s, Reagan’s de-regulazation of radio led the RIAA corporations to pursue a no-holds-barred policy of unprecedented short-term growth; they engineered a new paradigm shift that would draw speculators and investors; a new star; the next big thing, not just the hollow ghost of fame. Now that the local competition (both stations and labels) had largely been defeated, the major labels and broadcasting networks wanted to make sure they would never rise up again. Music radio listenership was down, but sales were higher than ever (if you believe their figures), so the radio stations would follow their lead. It wasn’t The Knack, or even Madonna. It wasn’t a DJ or an MC, but like them it went by its initials.

16. The Rise Of The Compact Disk (& The New Technocracy)

On March 2, 1983, only 7 years after Sony’s first public experiments with the new CD technology. CBS launched the first major CD sales campaign (with the release of 16 titles that had already sold well in vinyl-format), in conjunction with Sony, maker of the players. This date is often celebrated as the Big Bang of the digital audio revolution. “Time To Upgrade” become the new mantra, like a patriotic duty. The Compact Disk had more to do with any killing of the radio star, or the DJ who is what he plays, than MTV.

While a ticker tape parade of enthusiasm had greeted the new development of the 45 in the late 1940s, and eventually the LP in the late 1960s, it was harder to persuade a skeptical market that the CD was an improvement either aesthetically or economically. It was first marketed to audiophiles, as an elite object. Once it established some audiophile cred, its prices came down a little, as if to democratize the audiophile feeling: you too can feel classic when listening to Van Halen’s “Panama.”

As for content, the classic back catalogues were repackaged and pushed so the CD benefited from the 1980s economy of cultural scarcity. It could make more money off the dead and put more people out of work. Much less new music was being played on the radio. When the local DJ was rendered obsolete, so were the central relevance of charts. Suddenly, this week’s #1 song didn’t mean that much anymore, and lazily hung around the top ten awhile longer as the request line became a “do not enter” sign. The real money was to be made elsewhere; monopoly capitalism had abandoned the here and now so 1990 could look back at 1970 as if that was “America” and we were but a colony.

When CDs caught on, back catalogue sales went through the roof. The industry had lured the casual listener back into the market for a novelty spending binge, quick fix, which would show immediate profits, big bonuses and make them more attractive to potential corporate buyers (Bertelsmann, Sony, etc) in this merger-happy era. The trickle-down ethos and aesthetic of upgrade virtually forced consumers to spend their money on CD versions of Sticky Fingers, Astral Weeks, or The Oklahoma Soundtrack instead of new music. Advertisements for record stores that used to feature 5 new releases now featured 3 classic reissues with bonus tracks, and two new releases—at least one of which was usually a corporate-sponsored pop smash.

The word “Classic” gained currency in the 1980s. This was an extension of the general cultural slow-down & reification that had begun in the 1970s; a conscious decision to sell history. CDs helped slow time in ways that soothed many who were still shaken up or burnt out from all the social and domestic disruptions of 1955-1975 with the promise of a “return to normalcy.” Casey Kasem narrated documentaries: “A decade like the 60s can only happen once in a lifetime,” because his bosses were telling him he better!While waiting for a new song to sweep you off your feet, there was plenty of time for thoughts of technological gadgets and upgrading where once you might have thought about what new music to check out. The Radio time-line was slower, but technology time was accelerating. Vinyl was still hanging around though. Since the seductive approach was insufficient to hook people on CDs and get them off their addiction to vinyl, the major labels had to supplement it by force.

Although CD sales lagged behind the sales of both vinyl and cassette for most of the 1980s, vinyl sales sharply declined between 1988 and 1991. I remember buying a Columbia vinyl record in 1991 that was warped and returning it; the second one was warped as well. The third time I bought it on cassette. The record store owner was as exasperated as I was. We both knew why.

[In 1988] the major label distributors restricted their return policies, which retailers had been relying on to maintain and swap out stocks of relatively unpopular titles. First the distributors began charging realtors more for new product if they returned unsold vinyl, and then they stopped providing any credit at all for returns. Retailers, fearing the would be stuck with anything they ordered, only ordered proven, popular titles that they knew would sell, and devoted more shelf space to CDs and cassettes. Record companies also deleted many vinyl titles from production & distribution, further undermining the availability of the format and leading to the closure of pressing plants. This rapid decline in the availability of records accelerated the format’s decline in popularity, and is seen by some as a deliberate ploy to make consumers switch to CDs, which were more profitable for the record companies

Thus, the rise of the CD also occurred at the expense of the last-bastion of decentralized local music retail: the record shop owner and salespeople. The death of vinyl during Bush’s increased censorship policies & “Desert Storm” also froze out more ‘marginal’ and less popular cult-albums and had the effect of narrowing selection; this also hurt independent labels who were slower to make the transition to CDs or, in some cases, outright defiant toward the CD.

Furthermore, the change from vinyl to CD was a perfect excuse to close down domestic vinyl plants without having to directly “bust” a union. CD factories were built in other countries; outsourcing was sold as progress. At least Walmart’s outsourcing made things cheaper; CDs never were. The CD was used by the major record labels to consolidate their power, outsource jobs, limit consumer access to variety, and crush independent musicians and retailers. And, for what? I don’t think you can ever persuade me with your scientific studies that prove that CD technology is more accurate to “the human ear,” just as I probably can’t persuade you that I heard the soul-less sound of exploitation, slavery, and censorship in the CD. It’s just a coincidence…

The CD also helped the labels accelerate the phasing out of the single. Regardless of the fate of vinyl, the form of the album benefitedby the CD when the single didn’t make the transition to CDs. Formats like “Album Oriented Rock” did not suffer in the industry transition to CDs. The 10/12 song album was now the new Reagan-deficit gold-standard. In the 80s, the Vinyl LP and the CD worked together against their common enemy: the single. Even though the double-sided single had long ceased to operate independently from the album, sales of 45s were still high into the mid 1980s (Five Thriller singles went platinum, for instance). Yet, since albums by major label artists came out on average two to three years apart, the single existed in name only, as a physical object, no longer a mode of cultural production. Although the “Cassingle” had some success during the transitional time of the late 1980s, the CD single never caught on. The record labels themselves were never all that enthusiastic about it from the get go.

CD-singles were not competitively priced compared to other singles formats (and the album-length CD), but the labels still feared they were cannibalizing the sales of the higher profit-margin CD albums. They pressured Billboard magazine to change its “single charts” into “song charts,” which allowed album cuts to chart based only on airplay, without a physical single ever being released. The labels would still publicize an album track as the new “song,” but just think of all the people who made things they put out of work. Nor did the “song chart” bring back the alacrity of the single as mode of production. The CD may very well have its advantages, but it was also the industry’s final blow to the single and the medium that nourished it: the radio (to say nothing of the local retailer and American unionized factory worker).

CDs changed the record industry on almost every level: it killed vinyl and, more importantly, the idea of the single. The CD allowed the record industry to declare independence from most radio itself. As long as consumers would now be spending a good chunk of their money “upgrading” albums by dead folks, the record labels could make even more money off the CD without even having to devote much money to promoting new artists or dealing with pesky DJS. Commercial radio was not “dead” to them, it was now theirs!

17. From Kaiser Wilhelm to Kaiser Permanente

In the 1980s, the relationship between Sony and Columbia was analogous to the relationship between Victor and RCA in the 1920s. Against the romantic backdrop of Reagan’s inflated dollar, Columbia lavished a large dowry of inflated CD sales numbers on Sony. This courtship of the content provider and the maker of the machine took longer than June Carter’s seduction of Johnny Cash, but by 1988, Columbia was bought by Sony/CBS. The CD presided over this wedding in the 1980s as the radio presided over it in the 1920s. While the record manufacturer was bought by the radio manufacturer in the 1920s, now the CD manufacturer was doing the buying. The radio was invited, like the jilted ex-lover. She didn’t catch the bouquet.

RCA, by contrast, was not really in on the ground level of the Compact Disk sweepstakes as Sony/Columbia was. In 1983, Arista Records owner Bertelsmann sold 50% of Arista to RCA. In 1985, Bertelsmann and RCA formed a joint venture called RCA/Ariola International. In the wake of Reagan’s de-regulation, General Electric re-acquired RCA in 1986. Born in 1919, RCA was the first begotten son of the marriage of GE and the U.S. Military; and RCA created NBC to enrich its parents! When the justice department levied anti-trust violations on this conglomerate with several generals on its board of directors in 1930, GE lost NBC, but 56 years later, they’re reunited, better than ever without having to be cock blocked by radio or by music!

After the takeoverof RCA, General Electric proceeded to break up its prodigal son. GE sold the rights to make RCA- and GE-branded televisions and other consumer electronics products to the French Thomson Consumer Electronics, in exchange for some of Thomson’s medical businesses. General Electric saw the future of music, and it was in the medical business. As leading maker of X-Ray machines, GE had long been in the medical business, but with the privatization of insurance firms and hospitals, it was even more lucrative—certainly more than making radios, record players and other mere entertainment-oriented appliances. In a depression, hospitals always have costumers.

GE then sold its 50% interest in RCA/Ariola International back to Bertelsmann and the company was renamed BMG Music. BMG tried to make it clear that RCA Records was no longer co-owned with the other RCA entities which GE sold or closed. The only RCA unit GE kept was NBC. GE was more than willing to let radio go, but only if it knew a network would buy it; it had learned its mistakes from the 1940s, when it foolishly let radio become localized. In 1987, Westwood One acquired the NBC Radio Network and licensed the use of the name “NBC Radio Network News” from General Electric, which was divesting all of the NBC radio properties created or purchased by former NBC owner RCA. Bertelsmann and General Electric both became enriched by this complex series of negotiations in breaking up the once mighty RCA.

While BMG essentially bought the old Victor Talking Machine Company (RCA/Ariola), GE had the NBC-TV network, while Thomson got what was left of the old radio manufacturer, the Radio Corporation of America—even though Thomson was not American and less than 20% of its profits came from radio manufacturing; they got the cute nipper logo cred!

GE had never really intended to get into the music business when it started this whole empire back in 1919. It was just trying to sell radios and WMDs to the army. As it tried to preside over the American century, from Kaiser Wilhelm to Kaiser Permanante, GE, under the name RCA, was forced against its original intention to compete on the level of content which got in the way of its business of selling things. The problem was the things wanted to be treated as people, or at least like (live) music. The military had given RCA its form in a crucial era of nation building, but it always lagged behind in content. RCA’s content couldn’t compete in the open market-place with the seemingly formless masses it despised who excelled at content (even equally corporate Columbia was better at A&R, RCA was always better at R&D and Monopoly).

For almost two decades, RCA did more than its part to successfully de-localize the US Economy, and had successfully marginalized music from the center of American culture, using television and recordings to cut radio out of ‘relevance.’ Records and TVS and Radios weren’t even made in America anymore, and the weather for Omaha or Oakland was read by a Westwood One intern outsourced to Los Angeles; the sound of the sky obscured by the newly constructed skyscrapers of the mid-1980s Reagan boom.

The audience had already been hooked, or there was no where else to go. Artists were interchangeable, placeholders. Records not only preceded radio, but now were dancing on its grave; no feelings but in things. A nation of record collectors. This was RCA-Victor’s plan all along. It took over 60 years, but finally its job was done. It could die in Daddy’s arms; the body electric. The cold war was winding down, so the wealth of distinctively American 20th century popular music that had been one of our biggest cultural exports, and helped soften the hearts of even the most fervent anti-Americans in countries being bombed with GE’s other famous cultural export, could disappear, like a dot on a RCA-TV now made in France.

As a final nose thumbing gesture exclamation point of triumph, the two most venerable American record labels and radio networks were bought by a German and Japanese company. Only the form remained: the trademark. Nipper the dog, listening attentively to His Master’s Voice. He don’t dare bark back, but stands proudly repainted on the roof of a new condominium that used to be factory (but if you’re trying to erase history sometimes you have to erase the erasers too).

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