by Kevin Burton
The other day I was researching music and stumbled upon the Raised On Radio podcast. I thought, yeah, wish I had thought of that.
That’s me. I was raised on radio.
When I got back online to find it again, I found something entirely different called Raised On The Radio, with the definitive article thrown in. Who knows how many shows there are with similar names. Also there appears to be a band called Raised On Radio.
For the younger generations, I don’t think radio is a nation, a meeting place, national sounding board, unifier, a backing track to life itself, the way it was for people in the 50s, 60s and 70s.
Radio isn’t a thing for them, but it sure was for me. It was the thing.
So Wednesday I learned that today is National Disc Jockey Day. That’s a natural for me, one I had to write about. But it didn’t take long to figure out I couldn’t say everything in one post.
First of all, National Disc Jockey Day, commemorates the far-too-early death of one of the greatest DJs ever. His name is Alan Freed. I guess he was far from a saint, but the man was treated shamefully as far as I’m concerned. He was unfairly singled out as a villain in the big payola scandal of the 1950s. Freed died Jan. 20, 1965, just 43 years old.
“National Disc Jockey Day honors the death of Albert “Alan” James Freed,” reads an article on nationaldaycalendar.com. “Freed, also known as Moondog, was an influential disc jockey in the 1950s. He is credited with popularizing the term ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ that was used to describe the new genre of music.”
“Each year National Disc Jockey Day recognizes the DJs playing the music and spinning the records. The observance takes place annually on Jan. 20t,” the article reads.
I plan to have my say on Freed in some later post. Freed was before my time. For now, I want to mention some DJs from my era and pay tribute to radio as it used to be.
But, if you want to get the feeling of the time without having it filtered through my Midwest particulars and sensibilities, the whole thing is captured brilliantly by the 1979 song “Pilot of the Airwaves” by Charlie Dore. This is a female Charlie.
She drops you into the moment of being a sleep-deprived devoted radio fan, spinning the dial until finding that sweet landing spot.
The song’s introduction is an a cappella version of the chorus. The harmonies touch the whole musical range from soprano to deep bass. It’s the kind of harmony radio stations often used when recording their call letters in jingles.
That chorus goes:
“Pilot of the airwaves
Here is my request
You don’t have to play it
But I hope you’ll do your best
I’ve been listening to your show
On the radio
And you seem like a friend to me.”
Growing up, we all needed a friend at times. Some of us needed a friend most of the time. And if not, among our peer group, radio was a buoyant mutual friend.
“Pilot of the Airwaves” captures the devotion of listeners:
“Late at night I’m still listening
don’ t waste my time chasing sleep.
People say I look weary
But that’s just the company I keep.
Ooooh, you make the nighttime race
Ooooh, I don’t need to see your face.
You’re sounding good (sounding good)
Sounding good to me.”
The song seems spot on to me, even though most of my favorite DJs were morning guys such as Jim O’Neil at WLW in Cincinnati or Michael O’Malley at WNCI in Columbus. Dore had that 70s pop music voice, sort of a Joni Mitchell-ish sound.
“National Disc Jockey Day gives us an excellent opportunity to celebrate our favorite DJs. Give them a shout out on social media. Learn more about the history of DJs, too,” the article reads.
According to National Day Calendar, American newspaper gossip columnist and radio commentator Walter Winchell coined the term “disc jockey” in 1935 when he described radio announcer Martin Block as a disk jockey, referring to an operator who played music recorded on discs.
Beside “Pilot of the Airwaves,” there are dozens, maybe hundreds of songs that pay tribute to radio or to a particular DJ. I plan to cover some of them Tuesday.
At some point we’ll get back to the whole Alan Freed thing. The injustice of it makes me angry. But remembering radio as it was in the 70s on National Disc Jockey Day or any other day, that makes me smile.