John Lander. Lander’s playlist never, never allows two female vocalists to be heard consecutively.
I’d like to deny it — probably because I’ve expended so many words telling friends in journalism that their egos have swollen to the point of obstructing their vision — but I agreed to be a disc jockey for three hours a couple of weeks ago not because I wanted to report from the inside what a modem AM station does to its listeners, and how it does it, and why, but because some sweaty, fantasizing part of me overwhelmed the good old common sensical me. I wanted to hear myself on the radio. Amplified, echo-ized, and jammed in five-second gaps between disco’s fading dazzle, the perennial screech of acid-cum-space rock, new-wave robotry, the upbeat whoopee of music for schoolkids, or the herbal essence of Dan Fogelburg, I thought my voice, my wit, my unique consciousness would cut through the clatter and dishwater of pop radio. I’d be a one-man renaissance leading the listeners of 13K to light and sensibility.
KGB thinks it’s found a programming alchemist in Lander, who was hired from two Florida stations.
Silly, silly, silly. Flies in the ointment drown. Monkey wrenches thrown into the works get chewed up in the works. The mighty I3K rolled on and over me.
Picture this: A mike on a boom and wrapped in a gray nerf ball hangs smack in your face, never letting you forget it’s there. To the left of the mike is a stack of three cartridge players, to the right another two. Dead ahead and behind the mike, at your fingertips, is a console with volume dials and on-off switches for each of the five tape players, plus another volume dial and on-off switch tying you to the newsroom in the other studio. At your rear and to the right is a carousel that holds some 400 numbered cartridges with tunes of the Bee Gees, Jacksons, Blondie, Ace, Queen, Styx, and Don Kirschner knows who else. Behind you and to the left is another carousel with about as many commercials recorded, like the music, one to a cartridge. On the desktop under the looming nerf ball is one log that orders by number the music cartridges to be played during each hour. Another log, the program log, tells you at what minute and second you are to jam a commercial cartridge into an available tape player, and when you’re to read a public service announcement and when you’re to clear the mike for the news.
The music log of 13K, or KGB, as it was known before detente fell apart and the chicken flew the coop, lists about fifteen tunes which average about three minutes each and are to be played every hour. That’s roughly forty-five minutes of music every hour. The program log lists about four commercials that total maybe three minutes, a station promo or two for another minute, one ten-second public service announcement, and about seven minutes of news. All that leaves is about five minutes of gaps into which the announcer squirts the time, day, names of tunes and groups, and anything else that seems deserving of mention. In my own case, I also had to slip in regularly something like, “Hi, I’m Bob Dorn on 13K and I’m sitting in for John Lander, who’s having his voice overhauled. ” Even if I managed to think of something to say while I counted down the seconds of the Dr. Pepper commercial (“I’m a pepper, he’s a pepper, and if you drink Dr. Pepper, youwillfindthatyou ’reapeppertoo”), or while I was stricken with anxiety over my failure to remember whether another commercial or a music cartridge was to follow, or while I was trying to make sense of what the groggy sixth graders on the telephone were requesting I play, I had about six seconds to say it before stuffing another cartridge into the tape player and hitting the volume switches. There are reasons pop radio announcers are called jockeys. The race is to the swift, not the witty.
Talking fast is both a necessity and an inevitable outgrowth of 13K’s format and probably that of any other AM rock format. Even a case of the trots has got to be accommodated more rapidly by the jock than by other mortals. He’s got to wait out the tune, stick a four-minute number (The Eagles’ “Hotel California” is a favorite resort, according to John Lander) into the tape player, announce it, hit the start button, get out of the studio and down the hall to the john, where he has to do the old down and up and be back before the fadeout. Talking fast is just inevitable.
Ah, but does one think that fast?
I had to read a public service announcement for the First Baptist Church of Pacific Beach that advised of the appearance there of The Blackwood Brothers, and I appended a thought about soul music. In Pacific Beach? Well, maybe. I played a George Benson cartridge and afterward said something about one of the few “jazz” tunes on the playlist. Another jerk of the tongue. When the time came to give away an album, I jumbled immediately, “Okay, we’re going to go to give away an album,” and from there on bungled the whole business, giving the North County number for San Diego callers and the San Diego number for North County callers, correcting myself, pausing, giving the numbers again, and rolling my eyes gratefully as Barry, the all-night jock, took over and eased me off the air.
Barry, of course, worked most of the controls most of the time. But I tried not to pay much attention to his advice about style, which almost exclusively was to smile as I talked. “It comes through. You wouldn’t believe it.” The thing was, Barry didn’t smile; he was fairly serious. I didn’t like the headphones and grew to rely on the studio monitors to tell me what was escaping into 13K’s air, but Barry kept insisting I wear them. I understood their necessity when, during the news — when the air is shared with news announcer Jeff Prescott — I found it difficult to time my responses to Prescott’s. The words from the monitors aren’t as immediate as those from the headphones, which more nearly duplicate the conversational conditions of the telephone. But the headphones can do nothing for the lonely sound of the voice as it passes from the throat through the mouth into the mike and then through the pinball circuitry and echo-making hollows of the station’s electronics before its journey terminates in the ear of the speaker. I don’t believe there’s a lag — Barry said there isn’t — but what goes out the mouth and what comes in the ear are not the same. The voice sounds isolated and scrubbed and enhanced — kind of cool, even, so that you want to cozy up and croon a bit to the mike. Nothing serious you understand, just get a little bit down. That modifies the tendency to speed but it doesn’t make you smarter, just a bit narcissistic, which tendency was already established in me, as I related earlier.
I don’t want to create the impression that I was brought low by hubris, not entirely anyway. Even Richard Nixon in his last days must have occasionally suspected that his own presidential role was limited to some degree by the preferences of the public and the machinations of other opinion-influencers like himself. He just forgot once too often that success — real success as opposed to spiritual purity — rests on one’s ability to bend and blend with the public’s whim and the prevailing interpretations of it, or at the very least, to appear to do that. The Lord knows Jimmy Carter understands that fine point of leadership. He’s still following the format, still playing the hits, still winning those primaries. Well, being a successful deejay is a bit like staying in the White House — it’s relatively easy as long as you don’t stray too far from the program.
Apparently, KGB thinks it’s found a programming alchemist in Lander, who was hired from two Florida stations he is supposed to have lifted from obscurity to pop heights simply by knowing what to play at what time of day. I tried to take with me the three-hour playlist that guided my morning show but Barry stopped me, saying something about it being ‘‘Lander’s secret” that shouldn’t fall into the hands of the competition. If the competition is reading this, here’s what I gathered about music selection and the format for 13K’s morning show. Most of the music seems to be from groups that are photogenic and telegenic; the kids are probably more interested in looking like the people on television than they are in the sound anyway. Play only the most recognizable tunes of these groups, their big hits, because that will make it easier for most of the kids to choose what clothes to put on and an image to pursue during the day. 13K also makes it a point to play at the top of the hour and every quarter of the hour a ‘ ‘power song, ’ ’ a tune like Blondie’s “Call Me” that is in the top ten. The reason for this is that nearly everyone sets the morning radio alarm straight up at the hour, or fifteen, thirty, or forty-five minutes after the hour. You want to give them a shot just as their lids flutter open. A considerable number of the tunes, maybe fifteen or twenty-five percent, were released in 1977 or 1978. They aren’t golden oldies; they’re distinguished and anonymous and somehow current all at the same time, like late-model sedans on used car lots. “How Long (has this been goin’ on)” by ACE is one of these. And Lander’s playlist never, never allows two female vocalists to be heard consecutively. That’s one of the most solid dicta.
Even if 13K jocks had a turntable and record library in the studio (they don't) that allowed them to wander off into uncharted musical territory, the listeners would quickly remind them to return home to John Lander’s high-tech carousel of cartridges. It seemed that every request phoned in during my three hours was for a tune that had either been played during the previous hour, or for one that was coming up shortly on the log. It’s not so much a question of whether the chicken or the egg came first in this feedback loop, but of who’s the chicken and who’s the egg; because once the playlist and station format is assembled, there’s the illusion of perfect union between playlist and listener preferences. The kids are all too eager to agree with what the station does; all they lack is a log so they can be in perfect sync. One, who must have thought he heard us announce a call-in contest, unleashed a perfect “ah-raaght” when Barry picked up the phone. 4 ‘ Ah-raaghts ’ ’ are the war yelps of callers that are recorded and spliced together on taped promos that come up maybe once every three hours. But the only “ah-raaghts” that make it onto the taped promos are the authentic ones of contest winners. Barry instantly recognized the kid’s mistake and told him to calm down. “This isn’t a contest.” The kid said, “Oh,” quite a bit less maniacally. Station hands speak of kids who call up with unsolicited testimonials to 13K’s outasight qualities that are tempting to use but can’t be because the kids sound too much like deejays.
It isn’t all just a matter of life imitating art. Sometimes the listeners inspire the playlist. “Rapper’s Delight,” by the Sugar Hill Gang, last year was considered “too black” by the station. Perhaps because it was a big East Coast hit, it began to get a lot of telephoned requests last October and November and was finally included on the playlist. The grassroots also account for Tom Petty’s Dylanesque presence on the log, as well as Pink Floyd’s startling infusion of musicality and social criticism. There are requests for those anomalies, so it’s quite possible, as it actually happened one recent morning, to go from Andy Gibb’s chirping,
Let’s put an end to this stress and strife I want to lead the good life Good times
These are such good times,
directly to the bleak anger of Pink Floyd’s We don’t need no education.
We don’t need no thought control.
Ohl in ohl yo’ just anotha Brick in the wohl.
With that kind of discordance built into a format that sped on with or without me,
it’s no wonder I never said all those things about the Naval Hospital, the three Wilsons, the price of gas, and everything else I had planned