Monday, August 31, 2009

The day the music died

One thing kids today will never know is what it was like to have your own radio station.

Not what it's like to be a bazillionnaire and own your own big-time broadcast outlet but, instead, what it's like to be devoted to a radio station, this hometown entity that plays cool tunes (well, mostly) and becomes your window on a world much, much larger than the hick burg in which you find yourself trapped. Face it, unless you're a kid growing up in New York, L.A. or Chicago, you think where you're from is That Which Must Be Escaped.

And I'll bet L.A. and New York kids probably want to flee to Paris or Rome. Maybe London.

You see, long ago, radio stations were living things. They were staffed by live human beings whose job it was to entertain and enlighten other live human beings. These were called "listeners," something radio has radically fewer of these days.

Oftentimes, way back deah den (as my mom says), people would find one station or another's personalities and music so compelling that the station, in a real sense, became "their" station. Listeners took emotional and figurative ownership.

They listened day and night. They called the DJs on the "request line." (And note, please, this was an era when "DJ" immediately brought to mind a radio studio, not a dance club.)

Listeners went nuts for the contests, whether it was the chance to win $1,000 or just a promotional 45. They'd pick up a station's weekly survey to see where their favorite songs ranked this week.

They'd wake up to the "morning man" and boogie down to the groovy sounds the afternoon drive guy was spinning out through their transistor radios.

Boogie down to the groovy sounds? Ah, screw it. You had to be there.

THE REAL business radio was in back during its second golden age -- the Boomer age of Top-40 AM blowtorches . . . and of laid-back, trippy FM free-form outfits, too -- was the business of making memories. That stations sold some pimple cream while selling even more records was just a happy accident, at least from the perspective of their loyal fans.

Back when the Internet was more like the Inter-what?, radio was the Facebook of its day. It told us about the world . . . and about each other. It served up new music for our consideration.

Likewise, a station's listeners formed the pre-social-networking incarnation of what became Facebook groups and fan pages. In short, between the hits and the ads, between the disc jockeys and the contests, radio was community.

All you needed to join was an eight-transistor job, or maybe a hand-me-down table radio in your bedroom, its tubes glowing orange in the darkness as the magic flowed from its six-inch loudspeaker.

AT ITS BEST, radio comforted the afflicted, afflicted the comfortable, lifted downcast spirits, was a friend to the lonely and provided the soundtrack for the times of our lives. To this day, I can hear a song and immediately think "WLCS, 1975," or "WTIX, summer on the Petite Amite River, 1972."

And every early December, my mind will drift back to a late night in 1980 when I was studying for finals at Louisiana State, with my head in a book and WFMF on the stereo. Bad news through the headphones, and -- at least for my generation -- "something touched us deep inside."

It was the Day the Music Died. Again.

Tonight my mind drifts back to Aug. 31, 1984. That was the night a close friend passed into that good night of blessed memory.

That night, the Big 91, WLCS, played its last Top-40 hit and left the Baton Rouge airwaves for its new home in the youthful memories of aging teen-agers like myself. Two-and-a-half decades later, it just doesn't seem right that it's gone.

OF COURSE, lots of things don't seem right nowadays.

That WLCS isn't there anymore -- hasn't been there for more than a generation -- is just one of them in the mind of one Boomer kid from a middling city in the Deep South. You can read about why that is here.

But a couple-odd decades in retrospect, it seems to me that Aug. 31, 1984, was in a way about as profound as the deaths of Buddy Holly and John Lennon -- the intangible end of something we still haven't quite gotten our minds (or our culture) around.

It's not that the actual deaths of Holly or Lennon, or of the "Big Win 910," precipitated some sort of musical or cultural cataclysm in themselves. It's just that things were happening.

And being that things were happening that more or less coincided with each instance of "bad news on the doorstep," it's handy to use these events as markers.

For me, the demise of WLCS -- and the deaths of many stations that were nothing if not actual life forces in their own cultural rights -- signals The Great Unraveling.

The unraveling of a common culture is what I'm getting at, I guess.

Lookit. As much as we kids claimed stations like 'LCS as our own, we can't forget that many of our parents listened, too. Or that Top-40 radio of old played what was big, period -- be that Jefferson Airplane or Frank Sinatra. Because of WLCS, I think I could comprehend more than my own little world of teen-age angst and teen-age fads.

And it's why I feel just as comfortable with Andy Williams and Tony Bennett -- and, yes, Ol' Blue Eyes -- as I do with (ahem) "harder" fare. My world is bigger, richer, more diverse because of a 1,000-watt AM station in a midsized Southern state capital too often prone to calling too much in life "good enough for government work."

Thank God, that couldn't often describe the Big 91.

And because "good enough" wasn't often good enough at WLCS -- because the men and women who worked there just did what they did and did it well -- I owe its memory more than I can repay.

If, after these 25 years, somebody were to require that I pen an epitaph for my long-dead friend, I'd write just this: WLCS played the hits.

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