Good Vibrations: XM's Top 40 Time Tunnel
Here's Sunday's Listener column:
Somewhere along the infinite corridors of time -- well, actually, Friday afternoons on Eckington Place NE -- a bunch of middle-aged adolescents who believe that Top 40 radio jingles are the key to the swirling maze of the past are busy re-creating 1967.
In a windowless studio in the vast techno-complex known as XM Satellite Radio, Terry "Motormouth" Young each week transforms 60s on 6 -- XM's channel of hits from a pop music heyday -- into a real live Top 40 station from that era. Weaving together tape-recorded snippets found in listeners' attics, on eBay or in the possession of the nation's obsessive subculture of radio-jingle collectors, Young captures the sound and spirit of the AM stations that once dominated American popular culture as hardly any phenomenon has in the four decades since.
From radio powerhouses such as New York's WABC ( http://musicradio77.com ), Chicago's WLS ( http://musicradiowls.cjb.net ) and Los Angeles's KHJ ( http://bossradioforever.com ) to smaller-city signals like WROV in Roanoke ( http://wrovhistory.com ) or WLEE in Richmond, Top 40 stations routinely captured from 25 percent to an almost inconceivable 70 percent of the audience in their home towns. Kids listened because the deejays seemed to be speaking a frantic, hopped-up lingo aimed expressly at them; adults listened because they wanted to be part of the happening thing.
In that last moment in the '70s before pop culture splintered into dozens of demographically defined slices, the local Top 40 station was a celebration of whatever was bland and palatable enough to appeal to every age and interest group, blended with just enough rebellion and nonconformity to seem fresh and exciting. With deejays pulling wacky stunts at every turn and stations giving away cash in all manner of contests, you could hardly afford not to tune in.
Although those days are long gone, as radio struggles to avoid losing an entire generation of young people, Young's "Sonic Sound Salutes" each Friday reunites the deejays and sounds of those classic stations with nostalgic older listeners and young folks curious to know what the fuss was all about.
The weekly exercise in recapturing the past started in 2004, when Young, eager to give XM's all-'60s music channel an authentic feel, was searching for old Top 40 station jingles that he could remodel into peppy promotions for his own channel. After weeks of contacting radio stations and jingle producers in search of old tapes and permission to revamp the jingles under the XM name, Young says, "I just got frustrated and said, 'Why don't we just become that radio station for a day?' "
XM programming guru Lee Abrams loved the idea, and together the two began collecting sounds. For Young, the project was a journey back to his youth, when, growing up in Roanoke, he tape-recorded the Top 40 sounds of big-city stations that he picked up on his transistor set late at night.
Immediately after Young launched the XM series, listeners across the continent began to send him tapes of their favorite stations -- begging him to re-create the sound of the stations they grew up with. "It's like a dream come true to be a deejay on these classic stations," says Young, 53, who still recalls the first song he played on his first day on the radio -- the Osmonds' "One Bad Apple," on Richmond's WTVR in 1971. Young had wanted to play Led Zeppelin, but station management made it clear that it, and not the hired help, would choose the music.
One recent Friday, Young and NewsChannel 8 morning weatherman Ron Riley ( http://ronriley.com ) spent four hours re-creating the sound of Chicago's WLS, the classic Top 40 station where Riley was a deejay from 1963 to 1968. Riley hadn't been on the radio in more than 20 years (he had gone from Chicago to Baltimore, where he was heard on WCAO). But the art of walking up the intro of a song and completing the deejay's banter precisely as the lyrics kick in came right back to Riley, "like getting back on a bicycle," he said, "even though I don't know how to ride a bicycle."
With Young working the control board, punching up songs and mixing in newscasts, commercials and lots and lots of jingles from the original WLS (XM uses everything from the old days except the cigarette commercials), Riley sat in a Beatles T-shirt that he'd dug out of his collection and transported himself back to the mid-'60s.
No more turntables, of course, but rather a digital readout that told Riley how many seconds each song's instrumental introduction lasted. The deejay barely needed that number. As soon as he heard the first notes of a song, he knew exactly how much time he had to spin a telegraphic tale of adolescent longing, or to pull off a quick joke.
Using a list of Chicago area high schools and their team names that Young and Abrams had put together, Riley could summon up that instant sense of community, those days when he would preside over 70 high school record hops a year.
Over the long intro to his first song, "I'm a Man," a 1967 hit by the Spencer Davis Group, Riley started out saying: "I'm Ron Riley and how cool it is. This is an awesome experience; we're going to re-create the sounds of the greatest station in the nation." And off he went, talking about his cameo appearance on TV's "Batman" (Riley got 250,000 letters from WLS listeners, who snapped up the station's "Batman Fan Club" bumper stickers), joked about how the price of gasoline had soared to a stupefying 35 cents per gallon, and reminisced about the station's Secret Word Sweepstakes and Silver Dollar giveaways.
In 1966, Flip magazine, a teen pop publication, reported the story of a Marine on patrol in Vietnam who was marching down a muddy road when a Jeep passed by with a banner flying from its whip antenna. "WLS Ron Riley's Batman Fan Club," the banner proclaimed for all of Vietnam to see. Riley has sold much of his '60s paraphernalia collection on eBay, but he keeps that magazine.
As the four hours went by, the music, too, came right back to Riley -- not always the song titles, but the beat and a deejay's essentials: how long the intro lasts and whether the song fades out or ends cold. Riley and Young bounced along in their chairs, the volume turned way high.
And unlike the commercial radio stations they had fled after the consultants (and their demographically tuned playlist research) took over, on this Friday on satellite radio, the guys played what they wanted to hear. "I got two Beach Boys in a row next," Young told Riley at one point.
"I want some Beatles," Riley replied. "We haven't done any Beatles. Let's do 'Magical Mystery Tour.' "
A couple of clicks of the mouse and Young had it up and ready, and 20 seconds later the tune was on the air and Riley was pounding the desk and pumping out the sounds on a revived ghost of a station way back in the tunnel of time.
XM's Sonic Sounds Salutes continue Friday from 4 to 8 p.m. with a re-creation of CKLW in Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit, and Oct. 27 with WHB in Kansas City.
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