MY HOUR IN THE TOP 40 HOT SEAT
Sometimes, an article is just plain fun – fun to report, research, and experience, as well as to write.
Since my early teens, I had been an avid fan of Top 40 radio, and although I knew that it was unrealistic for a Chinese-American kid in the late Fifties and early Sixties to aspire to be in radio, I did. But by the time I got in, it was the Sixties, I was at Rolling Stone, and Top 40 was no longer the hippest thing on the air.
As I noted in my book on the history of Top 40 radio, The Hits Just Keep On Coming: “To our way of group thinking, what was groovy was on the emerging FM dial--the free-form stations sprouting in our hometown, as well as Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Detroit, and maybe a pirate operation off the coast of Britain. What was square? Top 40.”
But I still loved Top 40 radio’s energy, its unique
rhythms, and even its corniness. By the mid-Eighties, FM had overtaken AM, and
music stations of all formats had moved over to frequency modulation. But a few
Top 40 stations remained on AM, and, luckily for my GQ column-writing purposes, one of them was KFRC in
My purpose was to get to experience, if only once, the rush of executing the super-tight, high-energy format that I’d grown up loving, and that I feared was screaming its way to extinction. I wanted to give it one last hurrah; one last scream.
Peggy Stark, who was an associate justice of the student court, wrote in my yearbook, the Oaken Bucket, "Stay sharp and please be a DJ so I can hear your groovie jokes and lines." Judy Smith, treasurer for Oakland High's class of '62, snarled, "I'll be listening for you on the radio-you better make it." It took a few years, Peg and Judy, but I made it. I got to be a Top 40 DJ.
In high school, everyone knew my fantasy. While others air-guitared or air-pitched, I pretended to be a DJ. I was the kid who never had a date but could be counted on to bring a stack of wax to any party. I set up turntables and blasted music through the cafeteria PA system at lunchtime. I planned and emceed the weekly assemblies primarily, I think, to try out jokes and sound effects. I remember my first radio being a toy, with an antenna wire I had to connect to our clothesline.
"As a kid I
was fascinated with radio, and wanted to be on it. I constantly fantasized
about being an announcer." Larry King wrote that in his autobiography. He
could've been writing for thousands of us. The DJs were dashing local
celebrities, playing the biggest hits, talking about the stars and emceeing big-name
I did wind up, in the Seventies, with a Sunday show on radio, but the station was progressive rock, on FM. There were no jingles, and there was no screaming, no "talking up" records (that is, talking over the beginning of a song until the exact microsecond before the vocals began), which I always considered true art. It was a dream job, but it wasn't my boyhood dream come true.
By that time, Top
40 was the flip side of freedom. In the mid-Sixties, a shy, humorless DJ named
Bill Drake had come onto a formula to refine and streamline rock radio: tight
jingles, constant repetition of call letters and DJs who kept talk to a
minimum. The idea was More Music and less Everything Else-especially
personality. Drake masterminded things in
The Seventies brought us FM Top 40, and the Drake era was over. Today, AMs are littered across the radioscape. They're pinning what hopes they have on AM stereo. KFRC, "the Big 610," tried oldies and even, for a short, disastrous spell, game shows. Now it's brought back personality DJs, and it's going after the auto-bound audience (slogan: "The station worth saving a button for").
When I finally decide to feel some of the heat of that jingle-jangled format, I have only one station in mind. KFRC program director Dave Sholin, it turns out, understands all about boyhood fantasies. He sets up a guestDJ slot for me: Monday night from eleven to midnight, on Turi Ryder's show.
Through the years, I've heard about the pressures and the tolls on Top 40 announcers. To get some specifics, I call on Mike Phillips, one of the original jocks on KFRC, now program director of a light-rock station owned by the Mormons.
Working for Drake, he says "was like being in boot camp."
Surviving DJs talk about working in fear of the flashing big red light bulb wired to "the Batphone." It meant Drake was listening-and not liking what he was hearing.
Phillips remembers one of the tougher program directors, Paul Drew. "The phone would ring at you at five-thirty in the morning. `You realize what you did?' 'No.' `You said "the Big 610" instead of KFRC.' They wanted it perfect."
The result, say Phillips and other Drake alumni, was predictable. "I was drinking every night," says Phillips, "partying till midnight or three. I'd take an amphetamine at five o'clock and be on the air at six."
Phillips, now 44,
says he's stopped speeding. But he knows a lot of jocks who didn't. One former
KFRC DJ committed suicide, another-"a heavy boozer"-died in a head-on
collision. A third, who'd moved on to another station in town, left work one
night on a stretcher, babbling like a madman on LSD-which he happened to be.
And one of my favorites totaled a Jaguar XKE (a KFRC contest prize) and wound
up working in
A couple of days before my
appointed hour on the air, I sit in with
Nowadays, Ocean limits his drinking to sugarless soda pop, operates a production company and broadcasts on KFRC as much for fun as for the money. Commercial radio, however, is never just fun. Sitting under a track of lights that come on ten seconds before the end of a song, Ocean juggles dozens of tape cartridges (there is no turntable in sight) of songs, commercials, jingles and sound effects. His show, which covers the commuting hours (3 to 7 P.M.), is studded with news and traffic reports. And each element has to hit at a (continued from page 133) specific time of the hour, as dictated by a "hot clock," in order to hold listeners long enough to ensure the accuracy of the ratings.
Ocean guides me through a "stop set--a break for commercials-and explains how he keeps listeners tuned in. "I'm always billboarding," he says. " `Coming up'-something's always coming up. That's an old Drake-ism. The curtain's always rising."
Sunday afternoon: While my wife is out of the house, I try screaming "610, KFRC" and "the amazing AM." I listen to a playback. I decide I won't scream. I try talking up a record-Madonna's "Papa Don't Preach." I've got it down-after only a dozen attempts.
I write some "liners." Turi Ryder calls herself "the Lady of the Evening." I'm going to say she's charging me $100 for my hour there. Listeners will roar. The ratings will soar. I feel sick.
Sunday night: I
drop in on my friend Russ "the Moose"
Monday, 10:30 P.M.: I report to the Big 610. Turi Ryder is busy getting listeners to call in and sing songs in pursuit of some Pierre Cardin sunglasses. Ryder, a frisky brunette who looks about as old as my yearbook, runs a pretty loose show. The only way to go up against TV, the station figures, is to offer more than the hits. So Ryder is a "personality," with her own silly sound-effects tapes and even her own assistant, a young college grad who says his goal is to be "on air" someday. At eleven, however, Turi will be the engineer. I'll sit opposite her, with my own microphone controls and time clocks, so that I won't talk over the vocals.
On the air at 11:06, I deliver my opening and immediately talk over the vocal. My voice is revved up; it's high and urgent, and it's not mine at all. Not only is my voice disembodied, the whole show is. High on adrenaline, I have no idea what song is playing or where the time clock is. Ryder guides me through the flood of elements and helps trigger instant decisions. It's hard to pay attention to the phones. My niece calls, a radio groupie calls. He's doing a KFRC poster, he says, and wants to incorporate me-me and my one whole hour-into it.
Since I don't have the added pressure of running the board, Ryder encourages me to come up with a contest. I devise a quick quiz, but lose sight of KFRC's phone numbers. No matter. Loyal listeners know. The first caller, Leo, has the right answer: "Hey Paula." The second caller is a breathless woman who says she jumped out of her bathtub to get to the phone. And with the wrong answer at that. We put the winner on the air. Now not only do I have to talk to the guy but I have to remember to get him to say "KFRC" when I ask him what station's worth saving a button for. As a listener, I hate it when DJs do that. As a DJ, it's just a dirty job.
From there, it's
on to more commercials, more music and more bloopers. At mid-hour, my voice
drops to a conversational, almost human, level, and I have to remember to get
back into character. By hour's end, I'm wiped out. I appreciate, in a different
way than I did as a kid, what Top 40 DJs go through. On FM, I was cruising.
Here, I'm hugging the wall. Now I understand the excesses. And, now that I'm
one of them, I go right out to
Dave Sholin is a program director of the new school. No phone calls to the jocks, just occasional memos and a monthly meeting in which he plays back a random hour and goes through it, stop set by stop set. He spots the tension in my voice, skips charitably over the mistakes (but asks how they happened), notices a missing "KFRC" after a "610" and explains why, in a contest, I should avoid saying "If you're the winner. " The word "if," he says, "implies that you could also be the loser." He laughs at my jokes and praises the way I punch out the call letters. Listening to isolated segments of the tape, to those rare seconds that are free of error, I have to agree: I do sound like a Top 40 jock-or at least as if I had been doing this, if only in my head, for twenty years. At meeting's end, Sholin has a surprise. He asks if I want to do an occasional weekend shift. For real. My head swirls with pride, and then with visions of incessantly flashing red and white lights.
I think I need a drink.
Epilogue: A couple of weeks later Sholin calls again. The latest ratings are in, and KFRC's dwindling numbers indicate a near total desertion by young people to FM. So the station is changing call letters and switching from Top 40 to Top '40s and '50s: Sinatra, Cole, Fitzgerald. The scream is over.
-- October 1986 GQ