Before television, radio was king. Many of the earliest TV stars began their careers as on-air radio personalities yet, nowadays, television finds itself over saturated with content, and radio has become formulaic due to one-dimensional programming. Both industries were hit hard by the advent and subsequent maturation of the Internet, as classic forms of media continually struggle to pace themselves alongside newer technologies. Entertainment is now easily accessible, and even more commonly traded for free - a facet of modern life that has singlehandedly rearranged corporate business models.
YouTube is just one example of how the preservation of vintage media has resulted in entrepreneurial success, and Richard Irwin's REELRADIO.com extends the innovation to one of the most inadequately preserved art forms. The sights, sounds, and tales of yore are yours to hear while pretending that you are living during the actual time of the broadcasts. Ever wonder what 1969 sounded like on the radio while driving a Chevy Camaro down Sunset Boulevard? Go to REELRADIO.com and find out.
Examiner: You once worked in television. Why did you stick with radio?
Irwin: If you wanted to edit video tape - which was two inches wide - you'd use a fluid that would show the 'scan lines' on the tape and a big splicing block to cut the tape. Then, you'd match up the scan lines to make a clean splice. The cameras were on big rolling platforms, so an operator was required for each one as well as people for the audio, lighting, and video switching. Title cards, slides, and film required additional personnel. In radio production, I could use different voices and then mix and edit little quarter-inch tape a heck of a lot easier than 2-inch video tape. I could make entertaining radio alone, but it was difficult to do TV without a complete studio crew.
Examiner: So, how did you assemble REELRADIO's content?
Irwin: Some of it is from Programmer's Digest, a vinyl magazine that I subscribed to in the early '70's. Everything else has been contributed by collectors and those who made the recordings themselves. They receive access to the site in return. There are about 300 of them. They are all incredibly good people who want to share what they have.
Examiner: Which REELRADIO presentations are most representative of your own personal broadcasting tastes?
Irwin: I enjoy the stuff I grew up with the best! I loved Jack Gale on WAYS when I was a teen. It just didn't get any better. He called me a few years ago, and I reminded him that he turned me down for a job there in 1967. Regardless, he's still one of the most amazing radio performers I've ever heard.
Examiner: Radio was never as 'free form' as it had been during the heyday of 'Boss' radio, but describe how this change was allowed to occur and how it shaped the future of programming.
Irwin: The 'heyday of Boss' was not free-form. Free-form radio was the antithesis of 'Boss' radio, which greatly streamlined Top 40 radio, which was pretty much all on the AM dial. It started in 1965 at KHJ, and it was the beginning of much more disciplined radio than what preceded it.
'Free Form' radio came along in the late 60's and was mostly FM. Tom Donahue was a very good Top 40 DJ in the early 60's, but invented FM 'free form' radio in the late '60's because he was tired of formatted, mechanical radio.
To me, 'free form' radio is unprofessional. Format radio is consistent, reliable and enjoyable for its 'predictable unpredictability.' I'm with Jack Gale when he says, 'Radio is a show.' I like the vision of a curtain going up, the lights coming on, the orchestra starting to play, and the announcer stepping forward to introduce the performers. Shows, productions, and stage events are rehearsed and predictable. I like this kind of radio, and I think the very best performers can 'stick to the format' and enhance it with their own creative talents. The way it's presented is expected, but what is presented can always change.
Think Saturday Night Live. The performers have different roles every week, but the presentation is predictable. 'Live From New York, It's Saturday Night!' Radio and all great media has consistent presentation.
I also love the KHJ and WABC signatures, the musical logos that were always sung the same way, regardless of the singers or arrangements. Also, the short passage of 'As Time Goes By' on the Warner Brothers movie logo. That is style. That's format, and it's very, very powerful.
Examiner: Discuss the history of Top 40 radio, then.
Irwin: Todd Storz made it first, followed by Gordon McLendon. We're talking 1952 - in Omaha, of all places! It wasn't a reaction to radio, but a response to television. The radio networks were dying, TV was taking over, and the traditional programming of network radio shows was fading. Storz hit upon the idea of playing the same popular records over and over - something he could do at his station - without a network.
True Top 40 was a variety show. Many programmers consider that a train wreck today. I mean, who would play Wayne Newton and follow it with Eric Clapton? Radio audiences have become so specialized since then that no one needs to listen to country and wait for an R&B song. But back then, we did, and it made us more 'educated,' musically. We were required to listen to things we did not like between the things we did. Today, if something is playing you don't like, you simply select something else.
I'm glad I got to hear Tony Bennett, Johnny Cash, Smokey Robinson, and Diana Ross, along with Barbra Streisand, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Michael Jackson, the Ohio Players, The Bee Gees, Rod Stewart, and so many others on the same radio station. You don't hear that kind of variety anymore.
Check out the documentary, 'Radio's Revolution and The World's Happiest Broadcasters' on the site, produced by the late Dick Fatherley, and read the article written by Ben Fong-Torres of Rolling Stone.
Examiner: John Rook was labeled by Radio and Records in 1985, 'one of the most influential programmers of the past 20 years.' Describe his role in supporting REELRADIO.com.
Irwin: John consulted KAFY and taught me much about radio I hadn't already learned. He recommended me for KROY in Sacramento. I never would have gotten that job without him. He's an amazing, original Top 40 broadcaster, going back to the late '50's as a friend to the legendary rocker Eddie Cochran. He programmed for major corporations up until the late '80's, and is a brilliant, soulful man with an understanding of people and the mechanics and magic of radio that is sadly missing today. I am very lucky to know him, and he is still important to the site, having arranged support for us just a couple years ago. Check out his collection on REELRADIO for an amazing film made during his time at WLS.
Examiner: Speaking of the '80s, you underwent a career change when you entered the field of computer programming and created a product called MUSICMINDER. What was it, and was it a successful venture?
Irwin: Music programming, when I started, was with format clocks, rotating 'music books,' and 'stacks' of music designed to rotate through dayparts. All paper. Looseleaf notebooks with plastic protectors! I had used the same systems since 1974, at WJAR. Other programmers liked index card systems.
I knew music could be computer-programmed, but in '82, I could not afford an IBM XT computer - the business standard at the time. Most stations didn't have computers except for traffic and billing. So, I figured out how I could do it with a Commodore 64. Actually, I started with a Commodore VIC-20 purchased from Montgomery Ward for $3000 less than an IBM XT. I taught myself 'BASIC,' and realized I could make the computer do amazing things if I wrote software in 'Assembly' or 'Machine Language.' I wrote code at the lowest possible level to get maximum speed and memory efficiency. It was very time-consuming, as I'd come home from the radio station and write code for 5 hours almost every night.
Later, I wrote a fully-functioning music programming system that was widely adaptable to many different formats, and it ran on a Commodore 128 - which stations could get at Toys 'R' Us. Most traded advertising time for the computer, but they had to pay me for the software. I had about a dozen clients at the peak. I even programmed classical with it at Stereo KSAC-AM in 1987. It worked well, but the IBM/Microsoft computers were quickly taking over, and Commodore announced they would stop making computers in the late '80's. I started re-writing my software for IBM and Microsoft in Assembly, but got distracted by modems and online communities - early forerunners of Facebook and Twitter. So, I never finished it.
Later, I was offered a job in radio at the top station in Sacramento. But it was an engineering job. I had just discovered the Internet, so I declined the job offer, as, after I discovered the Internet, I never really expected to work in broadcasting again.
Examiner: Where do you envision yourself in the future?
Irwin: The site takes an amazing amount of work, but it's what I want to do. Lots of people put airchecks online these days, but I started it and I want to continue it as long as I can.
I still write software and some Perl and PHP web scripting. I designed web sites for years when no one else knew how. Today, it's no big deal. It would take a year to even shut down the site, since there is so much material.
In a few years, though, I hope to open the Repository to everyone with no subscription required. Eventually, I'll slow down and take some time off, but, right now, it's a responsibility I've taken seriously for the past seventeen years.
If the Repository can't contribute to my cost of living, then I'll be a greeter at Walmart, which would pay better than REELRADIO, anyway. However, as long as I appreciate and remember these great radio broadcasts and broadcasters, then there must be others out there with the same interest. That was my attitude back when I uploaded the initial site features in February, 1996, and such an attitude remains realistic today.
Examiner: What advice would you give to potential radio industry job applicants?
Irwin: People wonder why I would go to work when I was 14, and the answer was because I wanted to and could. What is life without a goal? It would be unfair for me to say, 'Don't go into radio - radio is not radio anymore.' I feel that way, and so do many others, but I would never want to discourage anyone who wants to try. I can't imagine being 14 and not having a passion for something, but many people in their 20's are basically without any direction or interest these days.
If you enjoy working with electronics, audio and computers, you might find good work in IT and engineering in a radio station cluster. Most companies have several radio stations in one building, and they all need one good engineer who can do everything. Meet a real radio engineer, if you want that lifestyle.
Getting 'on the air,' however, is very difficult, with the few positions available saved for those with talent unusual enough to stand out. Even Howard Stern grew up during an era when there were many low-paying positions for guys who just wanted to make a living playing records.
Are we past someone being able to walk into a small local radio station and get a job? I guess so, as it's a rare occurrence. Many radio guys are willing to help out, though. Go to remotes and appearances, try to talk to them. That's how I got started. Radio guys love to talk about themselves, and if you are sincere and a good listener, that's a great start.
Thanks to Richard Irwin for the depth of his irreplaceable radio industry memories. Follow Marcus Singletary on Twitter, and get his latest album, Marcus Singletary Sings Country Music Standards, at iTunes.