The DJs Made Old-Time Radio Come Alive

by Kevin Burton

   Music fans who go back as far as the 80s and especially before, badly miss the old days of radio. 

   You had music historians, actual musicians and others who loved music, choosing what records hit the airwaves. It was a wacky, fun time for listeners across musical genres. It was a time of personality, variety and spontaneity on the air.

   Today we will look at songs by Donald Fagen and Bob Seger to take one last (I think) loving look at that era.

   There were laments about the demise of radio even before this, but the Telecommunications Act of 1996 killed off whatever fun there was left in radio. The act took away the limits on how many radio and television stations any company could own in a given market. Quickly after it was signed by president Clinton, Clear Channel (now iHeart) and others bought up as many stations as they could get their hands on. Clear Channel began producing inexpensive, bland, homogenized content and airing it nationwide.

   Here’s a succinct explanation of the legislation’s effects from the website

  “This had a couple of negative effects. First, these stations are now being programmed from the corporate offices, using focus groups and market researchers to create a singular sound that is then broadcast by stations across the country, destroying the local/regional influence that small, independent broadcasters brought to smaller towns and cities.”

   “Second, it severely harmed the career options for people breaking into the radio industry. Before 1996, a mid-size city might have between 10-20 radio stations with jobs for programmers, producers, on-air talent, etc. Afterwards, those same stations might now be owned by 3 or 4 corporations, who stretch resources across multiple stations (or more often than not, just pull content from the corporate office via satellite). The effect was alarmingly swift: within a few years, cities that once had 100 jobs for radio professionals now had maybe 20.”

   Nothing I have read on the topic shows any optimism that old-time radio will or even can, make a comeback.

   Some artists have written songs about old radio time and we have featured them here on Page 7, starting with my favorite “Pilot of the Airwaves” by Charlie Dore. We feature two songs today. 

   “The Nightfly.” is the title song on Steely Dan co-founder Donald Fagen’s well-received 1982 solo album. This song is about a late-night DJ in Baton Rouge who offered “jazz and conversation from the foot of Mount Belzoni.” 

   In his tremendous work “Something In the Air: Radio, Rock and the Revolution that Shaped a Generation,” Marc Fisher writes that the Nightfly character was patterned after legendary New York DJ Jean Shepard.

   Part of the lyrics:
“ I’m Lester the Nightfly, Hello Baton Rouge. Won’t you turn your radio down.
Respect the seven second delay we use.
  “So you say there’s a race of men in the trees. You’re for tough legislation.  Thanks for calling. I wait all night for calls like these.”

  The Bob Seger song “Rosalie” is an ode to Rosalie Trombley, the influential music director of CKLW in Windsor, Ontario.
  She worked there from 1968 to 1984, so she was gone before the 1996 Telecommunications Act went into effect. But she is exactly the kind of music lover radio personality that the legislation put out of business.

    Her influence went well beyond her station’s listening area, as stations all around the US and Canada would spin a record if CKLW was playing it. 

  What people in my generation heard or didn’t hear on rock radio, to a great extent came because of a thumbs up or thumbs down from Rosalie Trombley.

   “In the world of Top 40 radio, Rosalie Trombley was a trailblazer – one of the few women to hold a broadcast executive position in an industry that was essentially a boys-only club,” reads her obituary in the Toronto Globe and Mail after her death in November 2021. “Blessed with an innate sense of music, she could pick out a good song from a pile of duds and help to make it a hit, earning her the nickname ‘the girl with the golden ear.’”

   “Many recording artists visited Trombley to promote their latest single releases, and the walls of her office were lined with gold records,” reads her Wikipedia entry.  

   “Among the artists she is credited with helping are Earth, Wind and Fire, Elton John, Kiss, Ted Nugent, The Guess Who, The Poppy Family, and Bob Seger.” 

   “Among the hits that CKLW was first to play were the Guess Who’s “These Eyes,” and the Main Ingredient’s 1972 hit “Everybody Plays the Fool.”

   “She persuaded Elton John to release “Bennie and the Jets” as a single, because she believed, correctly, that it would be a cross-over hit, appealing to both black and white listeners.

 There are differing stories concerning Trombley’s reaction to Seger’s “Rosalie,” according to Wikipedia. “Some claim she hated “Rosalie” and refused to allow her DJs to play it; others insist the programmer was flattered, but worried about a potential conflict of interest.

    Either way, CKLW never played “Rosalie.”

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