Updated: 4 days ago
This column was published November 11, 2023 in the Manhattan Mercury.
The Adult Contemporary radio format 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.
I was back in Wichita after a year away. As a 20-year-old 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, 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, the top-rated station in the market at the time.
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.
Heavy on the Manilow, Little River Band and the Johns (Elton, Robert and Olivia Newton-). The distinctions were subtle and involved radio station programmer judgment. Earth, Wind & Fire’s Boogie Wonderland was too R&B, but Lionel Richie and the Commodores’ Sail On was a staple.
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 wisdom to insomniac women. 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 when 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.
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. We would “hot track” the quarter hour with top of the playlist songs to keep listeners until they had been counted.
Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond, You Don’t Bring Me Flowers Any More. 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.
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.
Today it’s KMAN for local news and sports, then over to Yacht Rock on satellite radio. The 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.
The origins of my contemporary adulting. You might even call it The Biggest Part of Me (Ambrosia).