Sometimes a song has two distinct memories, and it’s hard to decide which one is more powerful. Today is your lucky day, for you get both of them.
In 1982 I was a freshman at Victor J. Andrew High School in Tinley Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. My formative years were spent between Tinley Park and Orland Park, the suburb just to the north. I lived there in total from 1972 until getting my first apartment/job/starting that whole cycle in 1989. The bulk of my friends growing up all lived there. To say that it was the center of my universe would not be a misstatement.
There were three high schools in our district, and only enough school buses to go around if they dramatically staggered the start times of the schools. For my first two years in high school, that meant a first period class at 7:20 am. In a more practical sense, it meant standing at the bus stop (in the dark, for a good portion of the semester) at 6:45. Each morning I would get on the bus, sit by myself (until someone got on closer to the school), and drift back to sleep, keeping one eye open to make sure that one of the “older kids” didn’t try anything funny. We freshmen were warned of “initiation rites” by seniors. Either the rumors were just that – rumors – or I didn’t appear interesting enough to be messed with.
Anyway – the juniors and few seniors on the bus (most drove themselves and wouldn’t be caught dead on the bus) looked so much older, more worldly, and more mature than we were. It was probably the smoking, now that I think about it. One in particular on the bus looked a bit like Jeff Spicoli and carried a huge boombox radio with him each morning. Apparently his coping ritual was to get on the bus and pop in the cassette of Rush’s Permanent Waves album. It timed out so that each morning I got on the bus the album was in the same place – the guitar solo in “The Spirit of Radio.” I had no idea what the song was, since I hadn’t heard of Rush at that point, and I always missed the beginning of it. But if I got on the bus and heard the guitar licks, all was normal. It wasn’t until many years later, when I was in college radio, that someone threw “Spirit” on. Once I heard that familiar guitar strain I bounded down the stairs to the studio to figure out the name of the song that had befuddled me for five years. I slept well that night.
In 2009 I was into my third (and final) year programming oldies station WFGR in Grand Rapids. I had come aboard in 2007 to take the station, which was running a satellite-fed and poorly-programmed selection of music, to new ratings heights. The problem was the audience was too old for the company that owned the station at the time, Regent Communications. We had a lot of audience, but they weren’t the right audience. You know, young people. Despite the fact that the buying power of the Baby Boomer demographic – those who would have been between 45 and 64 at the time – was actually stronger than Gen Xers (and much stronger than Millennials), the company wanted the station to skew younger. So, I was given the orders to kill the station in favor of a “classic hits” presentation – newer, more rock, less pop, add the 80s, etc.
No research was done in the preparation for the format change. No focus groups were conducted to see what the station should sound like. Instead, our group’s operations manager picked out a bunch of records he liked, and we argued about my choices for a softer, more adult presentation. I wanted something like the Drive in Chicago, and he wanted more Motley Crue. Our corporate vice-president went through and removed all of the songs he thought were “unfamiliar.” (This is the guy who complained when I played “96 Tears” on the oldies station, arguing that “no one knows that song.” We had a chat about charts, what it meant to have a national #1 song, and why a band from Saginaw would be played in Grand Rapids even if they didn’t.) The first casualty from my list was “When the World is Running Down, You Make The Best of What’s Still Around” by the Police. “We are not here to educate listeners about music,” he said. I realized that the game was up, and that I’d eventually become a casualty of this sort of thinking. Start packing.
Monday, June 29 was to be the day of the launch. I finished up my morning show with “American Pie,” took a breath, said a quiet farewell to the station I had constructed largely from scratch, and pushed the button signaling the format change. The first song I chose to play? “The Spirit of Radio.” I walked into the conference room, which was full of the salespeople that wanted to sell Mustangs instead of Buicks, despite getting jobs selling Buicks, in a sense. They applauded. I stood in the front of the room, dressed entirely in black, and said “You now have your classic hits station. Good luck.” They completely missed the irony of the lyrics playing behind me.
“One likes to believe in the freedom of music/But glittering prizes and endless compromises shatter the illusion of integrity.”
By the time it got to “echoes with the sounds of salesmen,” I had quietly excused myself to my office and began brushing up my resume. I’d be working across the street, getting oldies back on the air, within two months.
You can find the words of the prophets written on the stadium walls by clicking here.
UPDATE (June 15, 2020) – Rush put together an animated video version of this song as a tribute to Neil Peart. It’s also a fantastic tribute to radio itself. You can see it here.