Monday, February 05, 2007

The Day the Music Died?

Here we go, another cold February, hoping that it won't last too much longer and spring will come. Many remember February 2nd as "The Day the Music Died" because of Don McLean's hit from the 1970's titled "American Pie". On that date, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash at Clear Lake, IA, ending the promising recording careers of those artists.

Just a few days before that remembered another anniversary, where one man's death could be seen as signifying death for music locally and nationally. Ed Sciacky, long time Philly DJ, died that day after collapsing and falling in NYC. Sciacky was a pioneer in the radio industry, and we lost another local legend with his passing.

But the truth is, Philly radio started dying long before Ed Sciacky did. If you've been around long enough, you remember the days of free-form radio, where DJs could bring their own records to play on the air as long as they conformed to the station's format - or not. You could hear a track, or a whole album, of an artist you may never otherwise get a chance to listen to. Free-form FM radio opened doors for artists and listeners alike.

There's only one station locally that plays anything like this now, and that's WXPN out of the University of Pennsylvania. The death knell sounded in the early 80's when radio station WIOQ changed to Q102 and started playing the junk that you hear now. Before that, they were known as a "progressive rock" station and you could hear anyone from Bruce Springsteen to Steeleye Span, from Bob Seger to Renaissance. Now that was eclectic.

Today, just about every station programs with the information they get from focus groups, and program managers stick to a meager list of songs. Play lists are rigid, not free-form. And it doesn't matter what the format, whether classic rock, hip-hop, whatever. The worst thing that ever happened to music on the radio was that the corporate guys took hold of the stations. Forget art, forget what the people want. Money talks, and we get rubbish.

And you may remember...
...Michael Tearson's Gorilla Theater - The program started one night when Mr. Tearson locked himself in the studio at radio station WMMR and wouldn't allow anyone to come in and get him out. It was a stunt that should have gotten him fired. Maybe really a publicity stunt. Tearson is still on the radio today with Saturday Morning Sixties on WMGK.

...For Headphones Only. I believe this was also a Tearson show. All the music was heavy on stereo separation, so you got a treat when you had your phones on.

...Full albums played - A few of the local rock stations played full albums on schedule, so you could tape them rather than run out and buy them. Great for people who were either on a budget, or just cheap. I don't think that the record companies would allow it now, especially since their push a few decades ago that told us that taping was killing music.

...When local stations made the bands who they are - Many local bands thrived because of stations like WMMR and WIOQ promoted them. The Hooters, Beru Review, The Alan Mann Band, and others got noticed because local talent was more important than sticking to a play list. And places like the Khyber Pass and JC Dobbs packed out with fans wanting to hear the locals play.