I’m old enough to remember when radio was a big deal. As a kid growing up in L.A. in the 60s and 70s, our generation’s golden years, I listened to “Boss Radio” with legendary DJs Robert W. Morgan, the Real Don Steel, Charlie Tuna and Humble Harve (who went on to do a stretch in prison after shooting his wife). KHJ, more than any other station, became the soundtrack of our young lives.
I also fell in love with a small station in the San Fernando Valley called KGIL, anchored by an absolutely insane morning guy named “Sweet Dick” Whittington, a precursor to today’s Howard Stern. Like Stern, Whittington was known for his prank calls and stunts, including hanging a railroad clerk’s painting in the Louvre (the fact that he hung it in the men’s room makes the story even better).
Later, when I started listening to FM, it was like discovering radio all over again, only with a clean signal and DJs who played entire albums that I taped directly from my speaker.
All of this made me want to be a disc jockey, and I actually did it for a while, first in college and then on a series of crappy commercial stations throughout the Southwest. Although I had some good times and made some lifelong friends, I also realized that I’d gotten into the business toward the end of its glorious freewheeling run.
Still, I have a soft spot for radio that continues to this day, something I apparently share with a number of musicians who have paid tribute to the medium over the years. Sure, many of these songs are of the love/hate variety, ranging from wistful to defiant. But it just shows they still care. A quick Google search reveals more than a hundred songs about radio. Here are my favorites:
WOLD- The sad cautionary tale of every hard-drinking, check-bouncing washed-up DJ I ever worked with (and didn’t want to turn into), masterfully told by Harry Chapin, one of our best musical story-tellers.
Radio Radio – Elvis Costello at his pissed-off finest, growling “I want to bite the hand that feeds me. I wanna bite that hand so badly, I wanna make them wish they’d never seen me . . .”
Radio Ga Ga – A tuneful and bittersweet anthem from Freddy Mercury and Queen (penned by drummer Roger Taylor) hailing radio’s better days and lamenting the blathering squawk box it had become — but still holding out a glimmer of hope. A real crowd-pleaser.
Devil’s Radio – George Harrison’s editorial comment on the sorry state of talk radio is more relevant today than when it came out in 1987.
Last DJ – Rumor has it that Tom Petty’s song was a tribute to his friend Jim Ladd, a Los Angeles-area jock who refused to kowtow to the corporate overlords and “plays what he wants to play.” Ladd, by the way, is still plying his trade on Sirius.
FM – Steely Dan’s soulful title track was the only good thing about the movie. “No static at all.”
Radio Nowhere – Remember driving through some godforsaken end-of-the-world desert in the middle of the night and pulling in stations from thousands of miles away, only to have them fade in and out at the worst possible time? So does the Boss.
Radio Clash – And speaking of the end of the world, who better to write and sing about it than Joe Strummer and the Clash. The ultimate nihilistic Pirate Radio rant.
Theme Song WKRP – Back in the day when TV shows had actual theme songs, this was one of the best. The journey of every lifelong radio wanderer, told in under a minute. Dr. Johnny Fever lives!