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Incomplete History of Radio Song Parodies

I don’t know who “invented” song parodies.

I’m sure they were around during Vaudeville, and I’ll wager they existed centuries earlier.

My Son the Folk Singer
Alan Sherman is recognized by many contemporary song satirists as the father of the current art form.

But it was a song parody that launched the types of nationally produced comedy services that prevail today.

In the early 1980s, Katz Broadcasting put together a team — led by Andy Goodman and The Real Bob James — to create produced comedy features for the five Katz stations across the country.

This small company-within-a-company was dubbed “American Comedy Network,” and they insisted they had no intention of offering the service to non-Katz stations.

From the very beginning, I suspected that’s exactly what they planned to do.

But regardless of their intent, American Comedy Network was changed irrevocably by an integral component of the American communications revolution of the 1980s: the break-up of the telephone company.

In case you’ve already forgotten (or are too young even to remember), the relationship between consumers and “the telephone company” used to be much different than it is today.

For one thing, that’s what it used to be: “The Telephone Company.”

No one had to ask “which one,” because you had no choice.

For most of the country, if you had a telephone in your home or office, you were a customer of Bell Telephone — also known as “Ma Bell” — whether you wanted to deal with Bell or not.

Ma Bell provided your local phone service.

Ma Bell provided your long distance service.

And I’ll bet you almost forgot this part — Ma Bell provided the actual telephones you used.

You didn’t own a telephone; you rented one from Ma Bell… paying for it each and every month, forever.

For the lowest monthly rate, you got an ugly black, rotary telephone.

For a couple of dollars more, you could get a touch tone model.

Or one in a color other than black — but you had to pay extra.

And then the telephone industry was deregulated.

Suddenly, consumers were told they could choose from among a number of long distance carriers.

No longer did they have to rent a telephone from Ma Bell at exorbitant rates; they could go out, buy their own telephone, and plug it into the wall.

Naturally, consumers all over the country responded to the news of their liberation the same way:

They were outraged.

To quote Kris Kristofferson — although as I recall, his song wasn’t really about the phone company — American consumers as a group longed for “the freedom of their chains.”

Sure, as a monopoly Ma Bell made huge profits.

Sure, the company treated its captive customers with disdain.

Sure, their newly emerging competitors — like Sprint and MCI — were offering consumers a chance to save money on long distance calls.

But we felt safe with Ma Bell, benevolent dictator though she was.

People didn’t want to have go out and buy a telephone — especially because Ma Bell’s advertising campaign at the time did its best to scare us into thinking that if we didn’t use one of their telephones, we’d forever find ourselves talking into dead transceivers and, probably, our houses would catch fire, too.

Also, in the mid-1980s, the “alternative” long distance services offered real savings but provided genuinely inferior sound quality.

One of the pervasive problems was “skipping” — that second-and-a- half delay while the signal went from the earthbound transmitter to the satellite and then back earth— which consumers experienced as an annoying “echo” effect, not infrequently hearing their own voices through the receiver as they spoke.

Believe me, people were upset.

And — with perfect timing — ACN recorded a song parody, to the tune of Neil Sedaka’s “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.”

Now that you know the history of this song (and of the American telephone system), here’s the parody version.

 

As I recall, the piece was written by The Real Bob James, Andy Goodman, and David Lawrence; the overall music production was done by Bob Rivers.

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L.A. Air Force

Recently, someone asked why L.A. Air Force‘s legendary Singing EBS Test isn’t included in the 3-CD Cheap Radio Thrills package.

It’s been decades since my late friend Terry Moss debuted his creation for radio personalities and listeners around the world: the first volume of what became a 5-LP series, Cheap Radio Thrills.

As any old American DJ will confirm, for many years radio stations were required to broadcast periodic tests of the Emergency Broadcast System. Here’s what the listener would hear:

For the next 60 seconds, this station will conduct a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. The following is only a test.

That would be followed by this test tone:

Then the announcer would return to say:

 

This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. The broadcasters of your area in voluntary cooperation with the FCC and federal, state, and local authorities have developed this system to keep you informed in the event of an emergency. If this had been an actual emergency, the Attention Signal you just heard would have been followed by official information, news, or instructions. This station serves the [ ] area. This concludes this test of the Emergency Broadcast System.

Invariably the jock would read that copy in a monotone, there’d be silence, then the test tone, then the jock would return to read the close with the same disinterested inflection.

Terry decided to change all that — with these two cuts from Cheap Radio Thrills. Here’s the introduction:

After the intro, the test tone would be broadcast. Then this cut would be played, complete with a donut for the announcer to read the boilerplate copy that begins, “The broadcasters of your area…”

Question: As a listener, which test would you be more likely to pay attention to? The one delivered in the bored monotone, or the musical version?

Clearly far more people would actually listen to the musical rendition — which really upset the FCC. People actually paying attention to the E.B.S. tests??

So in its infinite wisdom, the FCC decreed that the Emergency Broadcast System test could not be sung.

After all, you don’t want citizens to actually listen to the instructions which, “in a genuine emergency,” might save their lives.

We omitted it from the CD versions because we didn’t want any stations to see it, assume it must be okay to broadcast, broadcast it and ultimately get in trouble with the FCC.

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An Even Dumber Advertising Explanation from Turbotax

Yesterday we took a peek at Turbotax’s current inane ad campaign that spends all its time explaining to consumers concepts they already understand, rather than showing targeted consumers why Turbotax offers the solution to an important consumer problem.

On Monday, they explained why “asking for help” can be a good thing.

Today Turbotax attempts to explain to you the terribly confusing concept of “taking photos of things.”

You certainly can’t fault their logic:

“And because we’re so good at taking photos, we’re also really good at doing taxes.”

Presumably the advertiser is referencing a product feature that includes compiling and analyzing tax information by taking photos of certain documents.

“Well, duh! I mean, people can see it right there on their TV screens,” the ad agency protests.

Well, no.

An estimated 93% of TV viewers in the U.S. “watch” TV with one eye on their mobile devices or on their laptops.

Ask yourself: The last time you watched commercial television, did you sit there and watch & listen when the commercials began?

Doubtful.

Has your life in any way been enhanced by viewing or hearing Turbotax’s examples of “taking photos”?

Doubtful.

Is the advertising agency making money on this inane campaign?

Oh, yeah.

TurboTax advertising

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Radio Advertising Inanity Spreads to TV

For years, incompetent ad agencies have filled the airwaves with radio commercials that spend all their time explaining concepts that the audience already understands, rather than delivering a clear, powerful sales message.

Now this advertising malpractice has spread to television.

The first 17 seconds of this ad are devoted to explaining to viewers why “asking for help” can be a good thing.

As an aside: I listened to this spot half a dozen times and still had no clue what was being said at :19.

Finally I ran it through Otter and determined the mystery word is “freelanced.”

Apparently “making sure the audience understands what the actors are saying” is nowhere as important as making sure the audience grasps the maddeningly elusive notion of “asking for help.”

The sales message of this advertisement is, “Turbotax can help with your taxes.”

How can Turbotax help with your taxes?

No explanation.

Why would you choose to ask for help from TurboTax rather than from H&R Block, TaxSlayerPro, TaxAct, TaxSlayer, etc.?

Sorry, they don’t have time to tell us.

They’re too busy explaining the almost-impossible-to-grasp concept of “asking for help.”TurboTax TV commercial "Help"

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Dan O’Day’s BRIEF, INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF RADIO

This is the most popular thing I’ve ever written. Reprinting it is this blog’s New Year’s tradition.

Hope you enjoy it — complete with the original illustrations by Bobby Ocean.

A Reader Asks:

“Following your advice, we’ve looked for and actually hired part-timers from several unusual places. (One was a waiter our GM had while trying to pitch a potential client, another a door-to-door salesman who came into the station lobby.) But when they get on the air, they seem to clam up and become much more boring than they were before we hired them. When training ‘newly discovered’ part-timers, what are the most important things to start with?”

My Reply:

TELL THEM STORIES…

…about how & why you got into radio, who influenced you, your best radio moments, what you still hope to achieve.

War stories about broadcasting despite impossible conditions, accidentally locking yourself out of the studio, on-air flubs.

Stories about personal connections that have been made with listeners: The girl who called to request her late grandmother’s favorite song…The fan who sent you chocolate chip cookies on your birthday…The listener who berated you for mispronouncing the name of his favorite artist.

radio DJ graphicStories about transistor radios under the bed covers and at the beach. Endless struggles to control the car radio buttons.

“Would you PLEASE turn that down”

and

“Wait, I want to hear this!”

Novelty records and girl groups and Motown and Stax and Cadence and Elvis from the waist up and hearing “I Want To Hold Your Hand” for the very first time.

Stories about lovesick teenagers dedicating songs back & forth to each other. About children turning on the radio before they’re even awake, feverishly hoping to hear those magic words from their local disc jockey: “No school, snow day….”

About loneliness and a solitary voice reaching out to you. About making a complete stranger laugh or reflect or remember. About baseball games from far away on car radios. About someone driving across town or across country, with only you and your radio brethren for company.

radio DJ graphic

Stories about Larry Lujack and John Records Landecker and Robert W. and Wolfman Jack and Gary Owens and Dr. Don and Kenny Everett (ask someone from the UK about Kenny) and those crazy young jocks who brought American-style radio to Europe in the 1960s by taking to the seas in honest-to-God pirate radio ships (imagine broadcasting under the worst possible conditions; now imagine doing it while seasick).

Stories about bad news and everyone immediately turning on the radio. About sad news and where you were when you heard it. About practical jokes and misunderstandings and mild or wild revenge.

About getting fired, packing up the U-Haul, and being scared all over again.

Getting angry, getting older and “the good old days.”

Static-y voices criss-crossing in the night. Fifteen-hour air shifts, flaky jocks, disappearing engineers.

radio DJ graphic

Stories about legendary radio people you almost met in an elevator at a convention. The major market PD who did you a favor; the request line caller you can’t forget. Practical jokes on the news guy, disappearing stationery, and a bedroom full of promo records that one day will be worth something.

Staying up late talking radio, swapping tapes, “borrowing” ideas, “embellishing” your ratings, deepening your voice, losing your voice, losing your place, losing your keys, losing your cool.

Wire service copy paper, 15-inch reels, pin-controlled automation. Caffeine addictions and junk food and whatever the station could trade for. Old friends, borrowed headphones, uncontrollable sleep-deprived laughter.

radio production graphicRazor blades, splicing tape, grease pencils. Draping the tape edit over your shoulders until it was safe to throw away.

Cue tones, cue sheets, in cue, out of breath.

radio DJ graphic

Slip-cueing, back-announcing, and hitting the post.

Egos, rivals, and friendships.

Imagination, excitement, Orson Welles and Jack Benny and Ma Perkins and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Arthur Godfrey and Don McNeil’s Breakfast Club.

Losing jobs, gaining weight, changing names.

“How do they do that?”

and

“Listen to this!”

Storz, McClendon, Drake…and Chuck Blore’s Color Radio. Play-by-play and blow-by-blow; sports scores and election returns and Number One on the charts this week.

7-7-7, First Ticket, Hooper, Pulse.

“You don’t look anything like you sound!”

“What am I doing with my life?”

and

7-day workweeks

and

“I can’t believe I get paid for this!”

Slow starting turntables, nickel on the tone-arm, the cart machine sticks.

Stories about hotlines, hot shots, skimmers, phantom cume, time checks, time warping, ratings, feelings, winning, showing off. T-shirts and coffee mugs and iridescent frisbees.

Billboard and Claude Hall and Cashbox and Record World and R&R and Bill Gavin’s green pages.

Floods and tornado watches and power outages and school lunch menus. Lost dogs, lost accounts, lost tempers.

Jiving, shouting, rhyming, whispering. Hiccup remedies, lemon ’n’ honey, and good old-fashioned adrenalin to save the day.

Embarrassed, elated, delighted. Hi-Low, Name It And Claim It, and Dollar-A-Holler. Playlists and station surveys and Good Guys. Q, Zoo, and Boss. Bob & Ray and Mike & Elaine and The Monitor Beacon.

Jingles, stickers, Chickenman and The Oidar Wavelength.

Silly stunts, intense rivalries…Passion.

B-Sides and label colors and songwriter credits. Favorite songs, favorite artists, favorite moments.

Newspaper wars, live remotes, and meter readings. Shouts, stingers, sweepers, stagers, stabs.

Make-goods, live tags, rip ’n’ read and backtiming to the news. Allan Freed and Dan Ingram and Cousin Brucie.

radio DJ graphic

Beat the Bomb and Lucky Bucks and Battle of the Bands. Pinning the needle, pegging the meter, riding gain.


Feedback and wrapping the capstan and “Hold on a sec, I gotta go on the air…”

Sign on, sign off, warming up the filament and Compression, Compression, Compression!

Gates board with rotary pots; Automax and Volumemax. Intros, outros, ramps, talk-ups. False endings and records popping & skipping and carts jamming.

Philosophical Differences and late night resume photocopy sessions. Tight board, good pipes, will relocate.

The big break, bad luck, skip waves, skipping town with the air staff’s paychecks.

Cueing past the splice, heavy phones, cue burn. Solid Gold, Hot Nine at Nine, Hot 100. WABC and KHJ and KLIF and WOWO and WLS and making it to the big markets.

Friday night countdowns, Saturday Swap Shops, Sunday drag racing commercials, twin spins, doubleplays, triple shots and instant replays.

Romantic entanglements, broken hearts, big dreams, small wins, and “Garbage Mouth Leaves Cleveland.”

“NO ONE is to touch these carts! And that means YOU!”

“Were you listening when…?”

and

“What’d ya think?”

and

“You should have been there.”

Then explain to that new jock:

Now you are there.

What are you gonna do with it?

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