(Above: The peace of having the water all to yourself.)
I was off the grid for the past week.
My wife and I made it a habit for many years to take a week, rent a cottage, and extricate ourselves from all media. The first year we tried it, it went well – except for the night the tornado came dangerously close to our cinder-block shack with no basement. (As the lights went out and the wind picked up, I thought “Wow, it’s really howling out there.” The next morning we read about the storm damage at breakfast. It’s part of the reason I have NOAA weather radios in my home, my office, and a portable in my car on thunderstorm risk days.) We’ve since modified it to “I’m turning on the out-of-office, and I mean it.”
We have a place now that we’re in the process of fixing up, and we spent last week living there. There’s no television, but there’s an old radio/tape player in the kitchen and I catch radio in the car on the way back and forth to the store for bait and beer and burgers. I left the car radio on Sirius XM’s “Yacht Rock” station, which I will freely admit that I didn’t care for at first, but has since grown on me. I’d write about this station, but friend-of-the-blog Jim Bartlett has already done that better than I could, and you can (and should) read that post here. One weakness that the channel has is “hey, it’s about a boat, so it fits.” I heard “Rock the Boat” and “Boat Drinks” and other things I don’t want to hear when I am in light-rock mode.
That brings me to “Cool Change.” Yes, it’s about a boat, and yes, it fits. The Little River Band were a staple of AC radio in the late 70s/early 80s; between 1978 and 1983 they put nine songs on the Billboard AC chart, and all but two of them were in the Top 20, meaning you heard them a lot. It’s a pleasant song about how peaceful it is on the water, and – I gotta admit – it was in my head while I was on the boat catching sunburn on parts of my head that haven’t seen the sun in years but now require the wearing of a hat. Try as I might, though, to come up with a memory of hearing this song back in 1980 when it was big, I couldn’t come up with one.
Instead, I have a memory from May of 1989, when I was visiting the Quad Cities and happened upon a radio stunt. Once upon a time, the changing of a format of a radio station was a big deal – especially when the station had achieved some level of popularity. Such was the case with KIIK-FM, or “Kiik 104,” as it was called. This is the station that Spike O’Dell worked for before leaving the Quad Cities for WGN. (Rumor has it that as compensation for hiring away the station’s morning star, WGN moved the rights to Cubs baseball to sister WOC-AM from crosstown WHBF. If anyone can corroborate that, I’d be grateful.) KIIK had been playing an inoffensive mix of soft rock and slipping in the ratings, and it was decided that a format change was necessary. Thus, the decision was made to flip to the oldies format, which at that time was only available on AM station WMRZ.
The flip removed the KIIK call letters and changed them for KUUL – “Cool FM.” To gain attention for the format change, Palmer Communications, which owned the station, decided on the perfect stunt: play the same song over and over again for an entire weekend. Thus, on a Friday, KIIK 104 played “Cool Change,” and they played it again, and again, and again until Monday morning, when it was, in fact, time for a cool change. When I moved to Davenport that fall to work for KRVR, I gotta admit – there was more KUUL played in my house than the place that cut my check.
Is this the most inspired stunt in radio history? Of course not. Am I sitting here almost thirty years later talking about it? Yes, so it must have worked. KUUL-FM lasted for many years as a strong player in the Quad Cities market. I got a chance to work on it for one day: in 1994, while between jobs, I went to work for the station on a Saturday as a favor to radio friend Chuck O’Brien, who was the station’s program director. I never cashed the check (it’s still in my boxes of radio souvenirs), instead using the aircheck to find my next job – an ill-fated stop in Springfield, Illinois. KUUL became a victim of consolidation, first being swapped over to 101.3 FM so that heritage WLLR could have the 100,000 watt signal, and then killed off entirely in 2012 for the stale Kiss-FM packaged content that iHeart foists on all of its small markets.
Being out on the boat and thinking of this song also got me thinking about radio and format changes. Do we not care so much about them anymore? Or is it that radio stations don’t care about us anymore, and change so often that it’s no longer an event when they do?
Years ago, before I had changed careers permanently, I was asked to guest-lecture at Grand Valley. A student asked me what I thought was the biggest problem with media today. I replied “apathy.” The student wanted clarity: “You’re saying that they don’t care?” “No, we don’t care.” We don’t. We accept substandard news coverage, uninspired programming, and stale playlists. And when changes are made, we shrug our shoulders and go on to the next thing in our feed. Maybe if we stomped our feet just a little bit more, we could cause some changes of our own.
It’s time for a cool change. You can hear the Little River Band by clicking here.