I remember listening to the radio a lot when I was a kid in the 1980s. My favorite shows were the ones where they would focus on an artist or an era and tell both important and trivial information on the songs they were playing. I still have more than a dozen episodes taped of “The Lost Lennon Tapes.” Now, that was a great show!
My dad had this old Grundig portable radio, so you could carry it with you around the house. It was brilliant: I could eat corn flakes in the morning while listening to rock’n’roll! There was just one problem. My parents didn’t like that at all. You see, those were different times, children were expected to play outside and do chores. Nobody’s mom and dad wanted them loitering around the house with headphones on – mobile phones have truly changed the world.
However, it wasn’t just the parents that were different back then, radio was different, too. These were still the years when the world was filled with small radio stations and each show had its own distinct character. DJs were free to play whatever they wanted, which meant their shows reflected their own personal tastes in music rather than the brand of the station they were working for. Consequently, each show was allowed to have its own niche. In the modern world, where most radio stations are owned by a handful of large media companies who dictate the playlists, this is no longer the case.
Where do we then go to learn about new, interesting artists and their music these days? Well, for instance to Musicto.com. You see, the modern counterpart of a fifties or sixties radio DJ is not really the modern radio DJ (they are so busy promoting themselves that they forget to promote the music); rather, it’s the music blogger. These are the people who, much in the same way as radio DJs of the past, build what they are doing around the music they like. Their main goal is to attempt to build a following of like-minded individuals and perhaps, if they are lucky, make a living out of doing something they love: talking about music and discovering new talent.
Think about it for a while, nowadays, it is the bloggers, not the FM radio, who are at the heart of it all. They are the ones who hear all new music, not just the generic hit music released by large record companies. But this wasn’t always the case. Before the time of the Internet and huge media corporations, a golden era of radio DJs existed. Back then, radio DJs were the ones who heard it all and it was them that managers and promoters went to pitch new music to. They were, in short, music bloggers of the fifties and sixties, the ones who discovered new artists and introduced them to the world. Murray the K, who was an ardent and early supporter of the Beatles, largely introduced the group to Americans. Another famous DJ, Bill Randle, in turn, was one of the first to introduce Elvis Presley to radio audiences.
Randle is an interesting character from the perspective of this article because his way of working was reminiscent of a modern music blogger. He was the antithesis of the 1950’s screaming radio jock and his style was very down-to-earth and straightforward, focusing on the artists and their music, not on himself. This won him the credibility he enjoyed throughout his career. From the very first year on the job, Randle handpicked the music and the musicians he felt were worthy to promote. Although no stranger to what was hot in the charts, Randle wasn’t necessarily that interested in promoting the hit parade of the day. Rather, his greatest interest and as it turned out, his greatest skill, seemed to lie in discovering new talent. And when he did play material by household names, such as Sinatra, he was more prone to play songs by them that were a little lesser know – thanks to Apple Music, today’s generation knows these type of tracks as “deep cuts.”
Randle’s affection for “deep cuts” didn’t make him very popular at the start of his career. In fact, he almost didn’t survive his first few years on radio. While working at WERE in Cleveland Heights, OH, Randle often played jazz and other slightly off-beat material in his shows, as opposed to playing what he was expected to play, which in those days was mainstream pop performed by white artists. This tendency nearly cost him his career. On Thanksgiving night in 1949, he played a black, jazz version of “Silent Night” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and received such an avalanche of negative feedback that the station manager Sidney Andorn fired him the next day. Luckily, the station owner Ray Miller saved the day. Being aware of Randle’s substantial listener ratings, Miller hired Randle back and fired the station manager instead. From that day onward, Randle was given a permission to curate his own playlists and basically, play whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. This was a wise move on Miller’s part as Randle went on to make him and his station very famous over the next decade.
Even though Randle semi-retired from broadcasting in the late sixties to pursue other interests such as racing cars, flying planes and augmenting his university studies (he became a professor in American studies and qualified for the Bar in 1987), he never gave up radio work completely. Indeed, one of the modern artists Randle promoted in his shows and had a deep infatuation for was Eminem. True to his spirit, he continued to broadcast right up to the very end. Bill Randle died in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 9, 2004.
About the Author - Tommi Tikka
Tom Tikka is a linguist, poet, professional songwriter, recording artist and a music aficionado. He started playing guitar when he was four and writing songs when he was six. Consequently, he doesn't remember a time when he wasn't playing or writing. It's fair to say, music and lyrics are not just something he loves to engage himself in; to him, they are a way of life.
Check out his "Music to Celebrate Life" playlist here.