Adult Contemporary

This column appeared Tuesday, August 7, 2018, in The Manhattan Mercury.


The target audience was 30- and 40-something housewives, for whom the Steve Miller Band was too loud, Donna Summer too risqué, Merle Haggard too morose and the Police too avant-garde. We sought listeners who would sob along with the King of Pop on She’s Out of My Life but would hold Off the Wall at arms’ length. 

Adult Contemporary radio listeners were not party people night and day. Mom jeans, feathered hair, clogs, pile the kids in the station wagon, punch up 1240 AM, Ride Like the Wind and sing along with Christopher Cross. In 1979-80, Wichita’s KAKE Radio had the Adult Contemporary format nailed. The Winner Takes It All. (ABBA). 

Heavy on the Manilow, Little River Band and the Johns (Elton, Robert and Olivia Newton-). The distinctions were subtle and involved radio station programmer (read: human) judgment. Earth, Wind & Fire’s Boogie Wonderland was too R&B, but Lionel Richie and the Commodores’ Sail On was a staple.

I was back in Wichita after a year away. As a college dropout stocking Cool Whip and Totino’s Frozen Pizza Rolls at a local supermarket, I enrolled in a year-long broadcasting technical school in the Twin Cities with dreams of becoming the next Denny Matthews. Truth be told, I’d met a girl from Minneapolis at the supermarket, she was returning home, I was convinced Love Is the Answer (England Dan & John Ford Coley) and followed her north. 

After she dumped me at the end of the year, Broken Hearted Me (Anne Murray) summoned all the earnestness I could muster along with the audition tape I’d cut at the trade school (I Will Survive, Gloria Gaynor) returned home and landed a gig as the all-night disc jockey at KAKE Radio.    

Time and temp, weather forecast, $416 in the Jackpot Jingle, Royals host the White Sox tomorrow, the Whitey Herzog show at 7:10 Tuesday evening, right here on 12-40 KAKE radio. 

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Through trial and error, I learned I was no comedian. Stayed away from the canned jokes and played it straight. Nor was I a philosopher. I was not there to impart my 21-year old wisdom to the handful of 30- and 40-something insomniac housewives. I was there to share George Benson and Rupert Holmes who, respectively, would Give Them the Night and help plan their Escape (The Pina Colada Song)

I learned that if you were having a crappy day and were Bluer than Blue (Michael Johnson), successful radio announcers found a way not to show it. No one wants to hear a glum DJ. Especially in the middle of the night. I was taught to smile before keying the mic.

The overnight duty included ripping, reading and recording wire copy that aired on KAKE-TV between all night movies. I honed diction and pronunciation. Iran was ear-RAWN, not I-ran. Abolhassan Bani-Sadr and Sadegh Ghotbzadeh. Lech Walesa and Wojciech Jaruzelski. The letter W was double-you not dubya. It would come in handy when I covered politics for WIBW radio and TV in Topeka. 

We owned our market ADI (Area of Dominant Influence), which fueled the account exec’s Kenny Loggins-inspired radio advertising sales pitch. Looking to reach the member of the household with buying power? This Is It.

Rating surveys counted listeners each quarter hour if they were tuned in for at least five minutes during that time. Hot track the quarter hour with top of the playlist songs to keep the housewives until they had been counted. 

Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond, You Don’t Bring Me Flowers. Fifteen minutes later, Babs and Neil again. Still no flowers. I was in love with Linda Ronstadt but Hurt So Bad every 15 minutes got to the point where it really did hurt. So bad. Sorry, Linda. 

Top of the hour network news was a hard start, so if Kenny Rogers’ Coward of the County was four minutes and four seconds long, I would need to start the song at exactly 55:56 past the hour and as Kenny faded, ad lib a station ID.

“Starry skies, 39 degrees in the Air Capital city. It is 3 o’clock in the morning on 12-40 K-A-K-E, Wichita.” 
 
Professional relationships need opportunity, space and proximity. KAKEland had stellar local talent on TV and radio and I’d often hang around after my shift, or swing by during the daytime to learn at their knee. Long before I knew what it was called, I was networking and being mentored. I learned from true professionals that one can have influence without dominance. 

I cannot remember the last time I listened to AM radio. Today it’s ‘70s on 7, ‘80s on 8 and Yacht Rock on satellite radio. Captain & Tennille Do That to Me One More Time and I am thrown back to a time and place when ambition and motivation coalesced with willingness to learn and grow. Very often, the hard way.  

The origins of my contemporary adulting. You might even call it The Biggest Part of Me (Ambrosia).