First in a series
By Charles Chandler
In this moment of social media and popular culture technology like Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, Podcasts YouTube, Spotify, SiriusXM, Alexa, Pandora and non-stop cable television is radio even relevant? Does it have some social and practical value in today’s media mashup?
Well, it depends on who you ask? There are a couple of folks around White Cloud that may have an interesting perspective on these questions.
I argue that in my ancient era radio was invaluable. It informed, entertained and facilitated a significant measure of social change. I saw firsthand how radio, and one radio station, in particular, changed American music.
In America, popular music is a change agent and always influences popular culture. If you want to challenge this assumption then ask your teenagers to let you listen to some of their current favorites. Or get the photo album out and look at some old photos of yourself and recall the music you listened to at that age. Let’s us senior rock and rollers take a moment of nostalgic reflection. And let’s also add a bit of background for those who have smartphones in their pockets and roll their eyes when you play your music.
“Listen, and you may learn something.”
Something my teachers and various family members would often say to us wee small nosy boys. We did learn to listen to the natural world around us and some adults. Especially those who were telling an interesting or funny story about some ancestor or a recent hunting or fishing trip. As time passed like most kids, we developed excellent selective listening skills. Those well-intended sound bites from on high meant to keep us from harm or develop our charter were expertly jammed. You remember those little instructive items, like ‘come home before dark’, ‘do your homework’, ‘finish your chores’, ‘wash up’, ‘say your prayers’, ‘watch for snakes’ and the ubiquitous ‘don’t do that’. When summertime life became a little boring some of my gang often prayed that we would find a big scary timber rattler or cottonmouth moccasin. Not me, I was raised in the Baptist Church and knew better than to do that. My nightly prayers were for the Brooklyn Dodgers to beat the New York Yankees and to get a bird dog puppy.
What we did listen to was hours of great radio programming. The radio was our home entertainment center. Those of a certain age may remember some of these popular programs. Arthur Godfrey Time, my Moms favorite, The Shadow ("Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!"), The Green Hornet, Dragnet, The Roy Rogers Show and we pretend cowboys were happy to be Back in the Saddle again at Gene Autry's Melody Ranch.
The Inner Sanctum Mysteries. Remember that sinister creaking door which opened and closed at the beginning and end of the broadcasts? Who could go to sleep after one of those programs? I still have nightmares about Boris Karloff presentation of Edward Allen Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart.”
There was the famous and popular Amos 'n' Andy and my favorite Sky King to name a few. I had a crush on cute pilot Penny which may have resulted in my long career in commercial aviation. We listened to all the great baseball games often while trading our baseball cards back and forth.
These various radio programs also offered “Premiums”. These were manipulative schemes that program sponsors thought up to fleece gullible kids. The scam went like this, you would pester your parents into buying this certain product, most often some lame tasteless cereal.
Then you cut the box top off the product and send it in with some small amount of change to get one of these premiums (cheap toys). My parents participated in the scams on a seasonal basis. More so in the summer when school was out. This was because when an order was in, I would spend endless agonizing hours down by the mailbox waiting for the mail carrier to bring the next treasure. This inexpensive and wise practice kept pesky, ornery kids from underfoot and out of trouble at least until the mail carrier came by. I think I still have my secret decoder ring around here somewhere.
At night rather than doing homework, my gang would see how many of the powerful 50,000 watts radio stations we could pick up. If the weather was right, we could get WLS in Chicago, and great jazz from WWL in New Orleans. In Louisiana, everything is complicated and either political or connected to the Church.
Regarding WWL radio history “before the Jesuit priests who ran Loyola University New Orleans could set up a radio station, they had to receive permission from the Vatican. A piano recital was the first program on the air.”
And of course, being both a school and a religious institute “the first broadcast day also included a three-minute request to listeners to support the construction of a new classroom building on campus.”
The most important radio station in our southern white teen-age world was WLAC in Nashville Tennessee. This incredibly popular and influential radio station was off-limits to many white teenagers because they played “race music”. The intended audience for this radio station was southern African Americans. However, as mentioned, we had selective listening skills and ignored those irrelevant admonishments to refrain from listening to that kind of music.
Usually someone, most often an older cousin, would have a car and we would all pile in and drive to our favorite night time hilltop parking place and tune the radio to WLAC. Invariably someone would light up a Lucky Strike cigarette and pass it around.
Race music and cigarettes? Straight to hell in a handbasket.
What was the attraction to WLAC? It was frowned on by the adults and it is my strongly held belief that WLAC and Randy’s Record Shop in Gallatin Tennessee formed the collective birthplace of rock and roll. I also think it was a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
WLAC was the place where that revolution started. Long before the sit-ins, protests, demonstrations, and marches began our American music was already integrated. In the 1950s at WLAC, it had been a few small steps from African American gospel and rhythm and blues to Rock and Roll. From there it was straight down the road to the end of the old order.
Randy's Record Shop of Gallatin, Tennessee, was one of the sponsors of WLAC programming and the Shop was increasable successful. “The historians and musicologists state that it hadn’t been for Randy Wood and Randy’s Record and WLAC we wouldn’t have the popular music we have today.”
Randy’s Record Shop opened in 1946. During the 1950s and 1960’s it was the largest mail-order record shop in the world. In its heyday, the shop mail-ordered a half of a million records each month. Shop owner Randy Wood also founded Dot Records which featured artists like Pat Boone and Lawrence Welk, the Fontane Sisters, Johnny Maddox and others. Careers of artists like James Brown, Ray Charles, B. B. King, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson, Aretha Franklin, and Little Richard got a jump start or were promoted at WLAC. You could buy anything at WLAC. Albums for $1.00, beauty products, fruit trees, and baby chicks. We all listened, loved it and bought our rebellious little records from Randy’s.
Little did we know that those of us sitting in those cars smoking cigarettes and listening to “race” music were part of a tsunami of social change. Because down in Tupelo Mississippi the dark demolisher of the musical order himself, Elvis Aaron Presley later to become the "King of Rock and Roll" was also listening to WLAC and probably practicing to those $1.00-dollar albums bought from Randy’s. On September 9th, 1956 the wheels came off the cultural wagon when “Elvis stunned TV viewers with his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Sixty million Americans watched either spellbound or shocked as he made a sensational debut on the country's most popular program.”
This was the moment when, big bands, folk musician and crooners like Pat Boone, Andy Williams and Pattie Page were handed their walking papers. After that show the rock and roll wave hit America in full force as Elvis, James Brown, Ray Charles, B. B. King, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson, Aretha Franklin, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, and Bill Haley became overnight sensations on radio and Television.
You can’t talk about commercial radio and rock and roll without mentioning WolfMan Jack and his nightly howl from XERF-AM at Ciudad Acuña in Mexico. A station whose high-powered border blaster signal could be picked up across much of the United States. “It is reported that the XERF signal was the most powerful in North America. Birds dropped dead when they flew too close to the tower. A car driving from New York to L.A. would never lose the station. Most of the border stations broadcast at 250,000 watts, five times the U.S. limit, meaning that their signals were picked up all over North America, and at night as far away as Europe and the Soviet Union. The border stations made money by renting time to Pentecostal preachers and psychics, and by taking 50 percent of the profit from anything sold by mail order. The Wolfman did his signature howl and jamming that rock and roll across the universe. You also had to listen to endless marketing. “You would get a guaranteed double your money back pitches for dog food, weight-loss pills, weight-gain pills, rose bushes, and baby chicks.”
I still don’t know why those early radio station sold chickens?
Rock and Roll. Oh my goodness what could happen next?
Plenty, because the next year on Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union not only launched the first artificial satellite but also officially inaugurated a "space race" with the United States. The space race and subsequent cold war with Russia and the hot war in Vietnam soon followed. If that wasn’t enough, we were also about to be invaded by the British. Not only had American teenagers been listening to rock and roll music but so had the British kids. “On February 7th, 1964 The Beatles' Boeing 707, Pan Am flight 101, touched down in New York City” and the British invasion began. After that, things got a little crazy including radio programming.
Was radio relevant and did it influence American Culture? The next time you watch a performance by PSY – Gangnam Style, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber remember that when Elvis performed on the Ed Sullivan Show he was censored. Often the cameras would only show him from the waist up.
Thank you, Randy Wood and your little Record Shop, and to WLAC in Nashville Tennessee. It was a great ride.
So, to the question is radio still relevant? I for one say yes because SiriusXM is an ever-present part of my life.
Don’t touch that dial, stay tuned for an interview with two local radio experts. White Cloud’s expert Mr. Verne Williams and Lincoln Township Supervisor Buck Geno.
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