Sooner or later, your favorite local radio music format will be gone. One day, perhaps without warning, it will be replaced by talk, news, or some “contemporary” format. Popular songs you once enjoyed, or maybe loved to hate, first become oldies and suddenly one day a program director somewhere decides the demographic skews too old and those songs just vanish from the radio.
The final cut comes when the format’s premiere disc jockeys disappear. Recently, one of the country’s top jazz DJs, Dick Buckley from Chicago, died. For several decades before his last broadcast two years ago, when it came to jazz he had few peers. Like the best DJ of any format - classical, country, rock, R &B - Buckley introduced old songs to new listeners and new songs to old listeners. Interspersed with his tales of hanging out with Count Basie and Duke Ellington, he typified the emotional hold a talented DJ with great music could exert over listeners.
Author Michael Chabon discusses the power of local radio in his essay, Radio Silence, “(The song)’Runaround Sue’ by Dion &the Belmonts (1961) was my mother’s all-time favorite. We used to hear it sometime on WMOD (“Washington DC’s Goldmine”), and she always got a certain look when it came on, something between surprise and reverie. All those songs, and even more, their familiarity and evident importance to my mother- the associations and memories they stirred, the good feelings they engendered – came to mean something to me. Their lyrics, their instrumentation, the outmoded crooning or falsettos of their vocalists, their monauraul shimmer, became part of my understanding of the era that had produced them, and my understanding of my mother, and of the way she saw and talked about her life.”
Unfortunately, formats pass on. AM radio stations that once filled the airwaves with 1940’s favorites, the Andrews Sisters or Dorsey Brothers, are long gone. That music may as well be Gregorian chants. 1950’s formats that made their bones on doo-wop, Chuck Berry or the Everly Brothers have become distant memories like poodle skirts and saddle shoes.
The 1960’s, which popularized FM, were the decade that was supposed to change it all. But you don’t even hear much 1960’s music on local radio anymore. A few warhorses like My Girl, Satisfaction, or I Heard It Through the Grapevine survive, usually on FM, but they are token exceptions. Even Beatles and Stones’s playlists have dwindled to an overplayed few. The legendary AM stations like WABC or WLS in Chicago, which once hooked Boomers on rock and roll, don’t even play music anymore.
The 1970’s are on their way out, also. Black Magic Woman, Stairway to Heaven and Ramblin’ Man may still be around but it means scouring the dial to hear them, if you’re willing and haven’t grown tired of them yet. Take note, Billy Joel, Prince, and Phil Collins, your days on local radio are numbered.
Who cares, you may ask. Besides satellite radio, it’s possible to download any of these artists, and thousands of others, anytime on your IPod. Your MP3 player will play Purple Rain all day if you like. People with IPod buds wander ubiquitously through suburban malls (resembling nothing so much as those emotionless drones from the Invasion of The Body Snatchers, the original “pod people”). Without question, musical choice is more varied and available than ever.
But something has been lost, which brings us back to the disc jockey. Chances are, no matter where you grew up, some DJ affected your life at some time - was it Cousin Brucie?, Larry (Uncle Lar) Lujack in the Midwest? Early “The Soul Man” Wright in the Delta? (The Real) Don Steele in L.A.?
The best of them were shamans, communicating from a spiritual world, conjuring powerful magic. Their medium might have been Wagner, Beethoven, Hank Williams, Miles Davis, Bruce Springsteen or B. B. King. But the magician behind the curtain was that DJ.
Precious few shamans remain. Jonathan Schwartz remains one of the best things about satellite radio. For years, he could switch seamlessly between AM and FM, playing Sinatra and discoursing on Sinatra songs all the way back to Frank’s 1930’s Hoboken days. Then, he might segue smoothly on another show and play Frank Zappa (Google please, if you’re under 40).
The best DJs, like Dick Buckley or Jonathan Schwartz, don’t just play music; they are artists producing indelible aural memories. Soon, like their formats, they will disappear and we shall not hear their like again. The IPOD and the MP3, and whatever technology comes apace will doubtless provide more music, better quality, and easier access. But no technology will ever recreate the great DJ’s and the intimacy of local radio. Future generations will be poorer for it, having missed out on one of life’s little pleasures.
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