RANCHO BERNARDO, CA, 1976-1981: Things are different now — at least Radio Disney exists — but in the late 1970s, radio definitely didn't cater to kids, and while I was aware of music, I wasn't finding it on the radio. Though the 45s era was waning, I did listen to them — plus LPs, like The Muppets' The Frog Prince; the sound effect when the witch transforms into a bird scared the hell out of me. Mainly I remember listen-along albums, played on a little plastic turntable. The 45 for the Star Wars "story of the film" (Mom remembers me reading that aloud without the record playing, and adding my own "beep" when I'd turn the page), the read-along Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit, stuff like that. Because my dad's dad worked in the corporate office of Cummins Diesel, we had a floppy 45 of the novelty song "Hummin' Cummins."
CAMARILLO, CA, 1981-1982: My "pop country" era: I mainly remember songs like "Elvira," "Islands in the Stream," "The Gambler" (well before I saw The Muppet Show's version), and "Driving My Life Away." Good time to pay more attention to radio, as this was when the first Star Wars radio adaptation aired — my first exposure to radio drama. Also my first exposure to NPR, but that exposure didn't "take" when I was 7. What did make an impression: the Mighty 690, the AM station with the illegally-strong-for-the-U.S. signal coming from Tijuana.
Back then, as a first- and second-grader, I sometimes somehow got confused when I heard instrumentals on the radio. "Shouldn't songs have words?" when I'd hear, for instance, Chuck Mangione.
LORD DUNMORE DRIVE, VIRGINIA BEACH, VA, 1982-1983: I mainly listened to what the folks listened to, '80s pop and '60s pop. The Sixties station tended to play two eras of the Beatles: early hits (up through Beatles For Sale) and Abbey Road, with almost nothing from the middle. No "Tomorrow Never Knows," certainly. The most outlandish song it'd play was the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations." The pop from then that stuck in my head the most: Elton John's 1983 singles "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" and "I'm Still Standing." Also my brother and I heard the Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back radio plays.
LITTLE LAKE DRIVE, VIRGINIA BEACH, VA, 1983-1984: My brother had a sound system. My brother shared the use of the sound system. My brother was also listening to Top 40. HELLO, CASEY KASEM. Also hello, Madonna: I can remember almost to the moment first hearing "Holiday." Also also, hello Prince, because soon before we once again moved, Purple Rain came out and I fell for "When Doves Cry" and "Let's Go Crazy."
(Though I still wasn't listening to lyrics closely. I thought in "Doves" he sang "Maybe I'm just like my mother/ She's never sad inside.")
And MTV. Make whatever jokes you wish; MTV was huge for me back then, when I finally started watching it. (I'd watched HBO's Video Jukebox before, but that was half an occasional hour versus the 24 hours MTV did.) Art was happening in videos, if you watched long enough. Events happened, like the video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller." And I heard a lot of fun music through videos.
NORTHERN VIRGINIA, 1984-1992: I moved to Fairfax County, near Washington, D.C., a month into fifth grade, and found the local Top 40 station, 105.1 WAVA. (It now plays religious programming.) Importantly for me, I also found Don Geronimo. In fall '84 he was WAVA's afternoon DJ; in December 1985, he and production guy Mike O'Meara debuted The Morning Zoo with Don & Mike, after the station's disastrous Charlie & Herrigan. WAVA went with a Zoo show to fight DC101's The Greaseman Show (this was a few years after Howard Stern had left the market), and while I recall Mom and Dad didn't like that I listened to Don & Mike, they really didn't want me listening to The Greaseman.
An example of the difference between Don & Mike and Charlie & Herrigan: both shows parodied the huge hit Miami Vice. Charlie & Herrigan had the recurring bit "Miami Mice." It was exactly as clever as you'd think (with sped-up voices like in Alvin and the Chipmunks). Don & Mike did "Miami Nice." Each segment would end with the two of them, both with genuine acting chops, saying, "Hey! That's not nice!" Honestly clever. It made me smile.
I was hooked. I've listened to them on and off, and when I can, ever since.
I also started compiling songs on tapes. Not mix tapes; that implies planning and programming. They were just "bunches of songs that I like," catch-as-catch-can from the radio. Just for me, as well; I didn't think to make tapes for friends. During a stretch of 1989, I compiled Don & Mike on tape: I'd leave for school recording the first hour or so of the show on my boombox, and listen and edit later onto compilation tapes. I did 10 of those. I still have them.
Don & Mike also indirectly helped me expand what I listen to: after they moved to WJFK in 1992, Don got a weekend DJ slot playing '60s pop, a more varied selection of it than the Virginia Beach oldies station I'd listened to.
(Maybe surprisingly, I also listened to fellow WJFK host G. Gordon Liddy, between Howard Stern's morning show and Don & Mike's afternoon show. In the '90s, I could sometimes listen to political talk radio without wanting to caulk my ear canals. I disagree with Liddy on an almost molecular level, but I could stand listening to him!)
I wasn't yet listing to anything approaching alternative, though plenty of my fellow high schoolers were: this was back when WHFS was D.C.'s alt-music station. Maybe I wasn't ready for alternative: when a friend told me about a Dead Milkmen song which had profanity in the title, I thought A swear word in a title? Why would you do that? Don't you want it played on the radio? I was sheltered, or maybe just not observant enough.
EUGENE, OR (1992-1996): Somehow, in four years at University of Oregon, I didn't get into Eugene radio. At all. Even with my friend Paul in U of O's broadcasting program. (Paul, by the way, earned his degree...then decided NOT to work in radio.) So I ignored college radio, plus I was not noticing most Top 40, either.
Around then, I got heavily into film music. I finally collected it in a focused way, after dabbling for years (like Star Wars and Raiders by John Williams, Danny Elfman's Batman, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen by Michael Kamen, and Howard Shore's The Silence of the Lambs). I learned enough to write about it, getting published in Film Score Monthly starting in 1995. CD producer Mark Banning, then co-runner of the specialty record label GNP Crescendo, once explained it this way: since film music is designed to be paired with images, when it's detached from those images, it can be especially open-ended, inspiring your own mental scenarios. (Like this: Radiohead wrote "Exit Music (For a Film)" for Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, but when I heard the song on its own, I forgot its origin and imagined it in what looked like a spaghetti Western: as the song grows more urgent, I see a Charles Bronson or a Lee Van Cleef stumbling gun-wounded down Main Street, to Do What Must Be Done before dying.)
I still got music videos through cable's "The Box: Music Television You Control"; people called a 1-900 number and for a fee chose what videos played, such as Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back," Meat Loaf's '90s work, and the uncensored version of the Denis Leary song "Asshole." Friends also turned me on to bands: Paul gave me Oingo Boingo on tape so I could hear Danny Elfman's other major output at the time; my late friend Mike Pearl very enthusiastically pushed Tori Amos. (Pearl was enough of a fan to get a copy of Amos's cheesy pop album Y Kant Tori Read. He honestly if sheepishly liked some of those songs.) And when I started dating Alicia, I started picking up on current pop again. Not that 1996 was all that great a year for pop, but at least I got back into radio. (Alicia and I also bonded over Oingo Boingo.)
HERMISTON, OR, 1997-2000: NPR saved my brain. Northwest Public Radio out of Pullman, WA, to be exact. That was my main station when I was a newspaper writer-reporter, 180 miles east of Portland. I once again, otherwise, wasn't very interested in the radio, but followed NPR with music alongside news, during a time I paid attention to both for my job.
Also, I compiled entertainment listings for the Hermiston Herald's "Scene & Heard" section (and reviewed lots of films), so I was aware of local music shows and, finally, was attending them. It was one of the few times in my life I've concertedly gone to concerts. (That included a special Portland trip to see Tori Amos in 1998, a trip where I turned around at Hermiston city limits because I realized I'd FORGOTTEN MY TICKET. Remembering later would've been worse...)
No, I did not get into A Prairie Home Companion. I've tried it. It's never been my thing. But yay for Car Talk!
PORTLAND, 2000-NOW: I'd been exposed to Portland radio in the mid-90s, and the first station I gravitated to was 101.9 KINK. What helped hook me was its show "Lights Out," interestingly ambient and gentle music played from 10 p.m. to midnight Sundays through Thursdays. Had no ads and seemed closer to an NPR-type music show than a commercial radio show; that was a nice surprise. (The show no longer airs, but in 2012 I bought directly from the station the 9th, 10th, and 11th "Lights Out" CDs. I kept the 9th and gave the 10th and 11th to bonnie_rocks, who'd come to like "Lights Out" when KINK streamed it online.)
KINK made film news, too: by 2000 its former News Director Mike Rich had become a screenwriter. By the time I was listening, Rich was no longer on the morning news, but he'd come on air a few times a week to talk about his nascent career: Finding Forrester was released back then, and he was working on both the true-life baseball film The Rookie and a (never-produced) script for a war film starring a tank crew. (His provisional title for the script was "Dragonfire," but I like that Rich's personal title was "The Tank Movie.")
KINK.fm is some of my musical comfort food — except when Leif's ads are on — as is alt-rock 94/7 KNRK, which I've listened to almost as long. 94/7's had drama: that drama is why I wrote my 2007 blog entry "The Epic of NRK." I care about this stuff: the drama affected people I like.
I've gotten to know radio and former radio people, as acquaintances and sometimes as friends. The Chris in the '80s saving Don & Mike comedy bits would be glad I know people who are, and were, in the business.
At times I wonder if I would've survived, or worked well, in radio. But I probably never would have tried for a job in the industry; and now, job opportunities in it are sparse. The industry has issues, as I've learned from radio vets; I think I would've chafed against those issues, or been fired quickly. As radio firings tend to be: finish a show, get told "You no longer work for us," disappear from the website and ads. I've seen that mess with people.
But radio is still here, and still in my life. Along with KINK.fm and 94/7 fm, I also listen sometimes to 89.1 KMHD, a jazz station. New and new-to-me music still reaches me. For a time I was also finding new music through iTunes Radio — alternative, country, the Star Wars music channel — but since the iTunes channels I'd want to listen to are now subscription-only, and a new subscription is not in my budget, I can listen to radio! Instead. Still.
Radio has been important to me. Writing this has helped me see how important.