Friday, September 17, 2004

Old School

So I was in Oklahoma on business this week, driving a rental car without tapes or CDs to accompany me. Because audio in the car is as necessary to my driving as gasoline in the car, I was at the mercy of the local radio dial. For years, "local" radio has for me meant either NPR or one of the national sports talk networks, which, of course, aren't really local at all. Not that it matters all that much. With the rise of corporate consolidation and the attendant evils of voice-tracking, you can't even be sure that more local forms of radio are actually local.

(Grim radio joke: "What's the difference between your local McDonalds and your local Clear Channel station? The voice on the microphone at McDonalds is live and local." The DJs you are hearing on your local station talking about local events may actually be in Baltimore and may have recorded their shows several days ago. Why this doesn't bother people more, I have no idea.)

I bounced between a couple of oldies stations in Tulsa, KTSO and Kool 106.1. I was guessing that Kool 106.1 was voice-tracked from elsewhere, although the DJ profiles on the station's website tout the local Tulsa roots of most of the jocks. It was hard to detect a hint of it. The jocks at KTSO were even more anonymous. Both stations cranked out a decent mix of oldies--KTSO's with a 70s/80s flavor and Kool 106.1 more in the 60s/70s vein--but there was nothing surprising about either station, ever (except maybe The John Tesh Show evenings on KTSO--what fresh hell is this?). They were perfectly serviceable radio stations, typically contemporary, with slick jingles, well-produced promos, and music that pushed the envelope never. I wouldn't have bothered to remember them at all, or to write about them here, were it not for another radio station I heard on the trip.

I had to head from Tulsa down toward Oklahoma City yesterday, and when I got out of range of the Tulsa NPR affiliate, I hit the "seek" button and landed on another oldies station, KOMA from Oklahoma City. The call letters sounded familiar--it wasn't until I got home and researched a bit of the station's history that I realized why. In the 1950s, KOMA was part of the Storz Broadcasting chain. Todd Storz was one of the primary inventors of Top 40, thus KOMA is one of the places where the format was born. Sure, it was an AM station back in the day, and it's been through the wringer format-wise since then, but it's been playing oldies since 1988. KOMA's playlist is almost exclusively 60s music (although I heard a couple of things from the early 70s), but it's what goes on between the records that makes it extraordinary.

I could tell by listening that KOMA's jocks are all veterans, and they are--the greenest of them has been in radio since 1975, the oldest since 1947. Guys from the old school know that a good DJ does more than just talk and play tunes. Anybody can be trained to do that. An old radio guy uses everything at his command, including his control board, to create atmosphere--what he says, how he says it, and how he times the play of jingles, records, and commercials, (There was a time when DJs touted their skills at the control board--"good production, tight board"--but that subtle art is almost entirely dead today.) An old radio guy also adds to his show by interacting with other people on the air--the news guy, the traffic reporter, the meteorologist, or callers on the phone. (This, too, is a dying art. The only people permitted to talk on the air anymore are morning show hosts, and most of them don't know when to shut up.) Old radio guys tend to know where they're from. A couple of the people I heard on KOMA still possessed Oklahoma accents, unlike the Tulsa jocks, who were bland and quirk-free and thus could have come from anywhere.

KOMA also has a seriously old-school jingle package, and they know how to use it. Jingles aren't as common as they used to be--stations tend to use what are known as "breakers," which are voiceover lines with sound effects (and the clips from movies and TV shows that everyone uses), because they're cheaper. Singing jingles cost a lot--and with stations changing call letters and formats as often as they do these days, the cost is often prohibitive. KOMA's jingles capture the flavor of vintage jingles--and their top-of-the-hour legal ID is one of the best you'll ever hear: "K-OMA--Oklahoma City, USA!"

Bottom line: What I heard yesterday on KOMA was so utterly solid, so perfectly balanced between music, humor, personality, and information--in other words, so much like radio used to be, and so much like the radio I grew up listening to and wanted to do--that the single worst moment of the trip was when I lost the signal on the way back to Tulsa. And here's what really sucks--the station isn't streaming its signal on the Internet, which means I'll have to go back there to hear it again.

Friday Mini-5: Five Great Legal IDs
1. WCFL, Chicago, 1974-1976 (Big fanfare followed by a donut for the jock to identify himself: "Seven o'clock with World Famous Tom Murphy at the Voice of Labor," and then the singers do the call letters. Still gives me chills when I hear it at
2. WLS, Chicago, 70s and 80s (The Musicradio ID--to follow this with anything that didn't rock was a sacrilege.)
3. Q106.5, Davenport/Quad Cities, 1995 (Great whooshing sound effects and a dead-cold ending that required you to nail the next record at precisely the proper instant. I am pretty sure it was developed by accident.)
4. KOMA, Oklahoma City, current (As noted above.)
5. WSUP, Platteville, WI, late 1970s (I will never forget rolling this one at high noon to start the second radio show I ever did in my life, and following it with Billy Preston's "Space Race"--which I nailed at precisely the proper instant. Just born with it, I guess.)


At 4:54 PM, Blogger WynChar said...

I grew up in tiny Tatum, New Mexico, in the 50s/60s. We listened to KOMA and pretty much nothing else. It reached us all the way from Oklahoma City. We loved it. This morning I was remembering KOMA and wondering if it was still on the air. The web revealed it is, but, as you said, it has gone through lots of changes. Since you posted about KOMA in your blog they're now streaming at
It was fun to read your post about KOMA. Wynette

At 9:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew up in Oklahoma City and still live here (im in grad school at Oklahoma State University). I have always listened to KOMA and have loved it. I am not to hip to how radio production works, but I have always heard people comment about it. Thanks for your input. I love KOMA!

At 10:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey -- I grew up in Arizona and New Mexico. I have fond memories of waiting for the sun to go down so we could listen to "Yours truly KOMA -- 1520!!" at night. And for the record -- I lived in Whiteriver, Arizona and Silver City, New Mexico, and KOMA came in quite well -- at night, of course.

I still remember J Michael Wilson and his alter ego, Rodney Rodent.

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At 12:32 AM, Blogger NYJD55 said...

I was stationed in Glasgow Montana 1960-63 as a Security Police Officer USAF. On the midnight shift we listened to KOMA every night. What memories

At 10:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My musical tastes I can truly say, were formed by "The Big 1520 KOMA" from the mid 60s through high School in the mid 70s. I too lived in New Mexico, Los Alamos to be exact, and KOMA and KOB both 50,000 watt stations, were hands down the most powerful stations on the AM dial but KOMA had the edge with their rock and roll top 40 format and great audience participation! KOMA was just plain fun! and I usually listened to it deep into the night, with my father coming in to turn off my antique Philco radio after I had fallen asleep...

At 8:43 PM, Anonymous Gary said...

I'm a native Okie and was a teenager in the 60's. KOMA rocked that's all there is to it. I went to California on vacation in 1967 and listened to KOMA every night. Years later in the late 70's I was working in the oilfield in Rock Springs, Wyoming. You got it listened to KOMA every night. Great memories!

At 5:16 PM, Anonymous Bill said...

What memories. When I was about 12 I listened to the whole US at night, especially KOMA with J Michael Wilson and Rodney Ratfink, on an old working radio I found in a dump. This was 1963-64. I lived in northern Minnesota and had a good signal most of the time. Kids today will never experience skipping records, DJs not catching the end of songs, signals skipping in and out, etc, while listening to today's prepackaged glossy digital radio.

At 9:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Had a paper route in Los Alamos NM. Always listened to The J. Michael Wilson show from 4:00 AM till routes end. Great show. Don't hear that kind of entertainment today. I remember friends having J. Michael Wilson posters on the wall.


At 4:30 PM, Blogger Bruce Ruble said...

WHEN we would loose the signal in early AM. I would tune in WOLFMAN JACK in DEL RIO TX.
SOMEONE SAID J.MICHAEL GOT FIRED FOR TELLING A JOKE ? please respond if anyone knows pro or con.

At 4:30 PM, Blogger Bruce Ruble said...

WHEN we would loose the signal in early AM. I would tune in WOLFMAN JACK in DEL RIO TX.
SOMEONE SAID J.MICHAEL GOT FIRED FOR TELLING A JOKE ? please respond if anyone knows pro or con.


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