Life Soundtrack Part II: Cuing Vinyl and Restroom Songs

DJYesterday I wrote a post called “What is Your Life’s Soundtrack?” In it, I wrote about the songs that were part of my story from childhood through college. I promised that I would continue my narrative with the music of my adult life. I realized that I have already written some of this, however, and so I give you this excerpt from the book Arlo, Alice and Anglicans. It discusses my first radio job after graduating from broadcast school:

Not long after, I got my own airshift at “your light rock, more music station KJF” in Cadillac, Michigan. At the time, the station’s format was AC/Gold, which meant that it played a combination of the innocuous hits of today with a generous helping of oldies. I worked at KJF at the end of an era. My co-workers and I actually cued up records. For those who are too young to remember, the word “record” is short for recording. It referred to black vinyl discs with grooved surfaces. Cuing a record involved putting the stylus in the groove, finding the very beginning of the sound and then spinning the record back a quarter turn, thus allowing the turntable to get up to speed before the music began. (When it was not up to speed you got an embarrassing swoosh into the song.)

Cuing records didn’t allow a D.J. a lot of time to sit around. Today, with automation technology, D.J.s are generally unnecessary. If there is an actual human being in the booth, the music is usually played by a computer. If you hear the announcer say, “We’ll be back after this 20 minute music marathon,” that actually means that, if there was a live announcer in the booth at all, she’s now going to go away and let the music marathon play from a computer while she does other things. Back in the cuing vinyl days, this was not the case. While the song played, an announcer was busy selecting the next record, cuing it up on the turn table and getting the commercials which were all recorded on individual cartridge tapes.

When I say “selecting the next record,” I don’t simply mean taking it out of its jacket. In those days, the music was not chosen with the aid of a computer program. Disc jockeys actually had some say in what we put on the air. The station manager did have a way of making sure we didn’t play the same songs over and over. We had what was called a clock hour. It was a pie chart, representing an hour, divided into three minute intervals. In each section was a color representing a category of music to be played in that time. Each song we played was written on the top of an index card. The cards were kept in the studio. When you played a song, you wrote the time and day on the card. You had to play music from the correct category at the correct time. As long as two other air shifts had played the specific song since you had, you could play it.

This method allowed D.J.s to do theme shows, take requests… and go to the bathroom. In every radio station I’ve ever seen, the bathroom is about as far as humanly possible from the air studio. Therefore, if nature called, a D.J. either had to be very quick or he had to play a very long song. If you ask a D.J. who worked at a rock station in the 1970s or early 80s, he can probably tell you the exact lengths of the long songs from memory. The longest song on our official play list was Don McLean’s “American Pie” at a wonderful, get a snack, 8:28. It was always the background music for studio emergencies. At KJF, we were always getting in trouble for playing certain songs more frequently than others. Our station manager believed we all loved Chicago’s “Beginnings” (7:41 with a full one minute drum fade at the end), The Beatles “Hey Jude” (7:02) and Al Stewart’s “The Year of the Cat” (7:38). They weren’t really our favorite songs, we just had to go to the bathroom, and those Dave Clark Five songs (1:51) were just useless.

In the 1970s, long songs were very popular. I believe this was the bathroom phenomena at work. After releasing a 6:26 song, a band would suddenly get lots of air play. When MTV came about in the 1980s, the VJs didn’t actually stand around and play the videos. They had all the time they needed to go to the bathroom, so short songs came back into style.

Of course, it was possible for an artist to carry the long thing a little too far. Even in the vinyl disc days of radio, it was difficult to drop in a song that was the length of the average sit-com. Such was the case with “Alice’s Restaurant.” Our station manager refused to have a copy of the 18 and a half minute record on the premises. It would have gotten what they call “saturation play” late at night while overnight D.J.s (another casualty of automation) took naps. There was, in fact, a whole mythology among DJs surrounding that song. Many announcers had colorful stories of things they had done during that 18 minutes. (Most of them were probably lies)

Despite it’s enduring popularity, “Alice’s Restaurant” was never a chart hit. Apparently, the record company couldn’t figure out how to release an 18 minute song on a radio-friendly 45 without having it fall off the edges of the disc. (An abbreviated version, Alice’s Rock & Roll Restaurant, made it to number 97 on the charts.) Once a year at Thanksgiving though, the KJF public wanted to hear nothing else. The story that Arlo Guthrie tells in “Alice’s Restaurant” begins on Thanksgiving. It is a tenuous connection to the holiday at best, the song has about as much to do with Thanksgiving as it has to do with, well, Alice. But as the marketing people would say, Arlo found a niche that was not being serviced. Can you name another rock and roll Thanksgiving song? Can you name another Thanksgiving song, period? That is why, once a year, members of the baby boom generation called KJF to request it.

One thing I failed to mention in this introduction is that listeners had this strange belief that radio stations had magical access to every recording ever made. When people called to request “Alice’s Restaurant” and I said we didn’t have it I meant we did not have it. The only Arlo Guthrie record we physically had in the studio was “City of New Orleans.” Callers, for some reason, found this hard to believe.

MI0002521448While working at KJF I discovered Lee Michaels. I liked his “Do You Know What I Mean?” (I read that he hated it.) To be totally honest, I think I liked his puppy dog eyes as much as his music.

Erasure had released an album of Abba covers. While the traffic director complained about the Abba tracks on our playlist, I went home and listened to the Erasure versions of the same songs.

I recorded my one song during this period. Through an ad looking for a singer, I met a Depeche Mode inspired duo who recorded in their bathroom. With them I wrote and recorded one song and sang on another track. I have the two songs on a cassette somewhere. One guy dug me, the other didn’t. I wasn’t invited back. My career as a rock star came to an abrupt end.

(KJF also played Barry Manilow, Air Supply, Michael Bolton and some of the lighter hits by Phil Collins.)

I also made a mix tape (on cassette) that I called “KJF Antidote.” It had heavier fare, mostly tracks by Nirvana.

By the way, does anyone remember when Greg Kinnear hosted a show called Talk Soup? I used to watch that after my airshift.

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