Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | A Time Machine of Classic Top 40 Radio
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A Time Machine of Classic Top 40 Radio

transistorradio.jpgI grew up – like all baby boomers – during an era of radio when the Top 40 format was perfected during the first two decade of rock and roll, and genres didn’t divide up into separate formats. An entire generation of pop music fans pretty much grew up listening to a wild mix of rock, soul, country – white and black – with a lot of novelty songs thrown in for good measure.

This was true through the 1960s, certainly and also up through the mid-‘70s. But two things happened to radio between, say 1969 and 1974. First, the FM progressive or freeform format that had emerged in 1967 began attracting the older rock music fans, and for the first time, after 1969, there was a defined generation gap. If you were in college and protesting the Vietnam war, chances were the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” wasn’t as relevant to you as, say, Ten Years After’s “I’d Love to Change the World.” For me, being just 11 during the summer of 1969, bubblegum rock was a sweet and welcome part of my musical diet.

There was a lot of crossover between FM and AM, especially during the early ‘70s. For instance songs like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio” was a hit on AM as well as FM stations.

As a kid, I listened to my static-y transistor radio all day and all of the night, and although it sounds like a silly cliche today, I put it under my pillow with the sound low, so I could listen to it as I fell asleep without my parents knowing. During the day I listened to Washington, DC-area powerhouse stations like WEAM, WEEL and WPGC, and at night, I could tune in faraway stations like WLS in Chicago, or sometimes, WABC in New York.

I listened to both AM Top 40 and FM progressive stations through 1974, and then pretty much stayed with FM after that. I can’t tell you much about the big Top 40 hits of the late ‘70s (except the disco hits I’ve come to know over the years), ‘80s, ‘90s or the past few years. I kept up with FM radio during most of that time, but by the new millennium, I fell out of touch with the new underground sounds too.

Now I listen to a weird mix of old and new – mostly old, with world music and jazz and folk and singer-songwriters and lots of indie stuff that probably will never find its way to any radio playlists, of music by local artists, street musicians, friends who are in band, etc.

Hey, I’m a baby boomer, so I’m nostalgic about radio.

I’m nostalgic for the days when I was a radio fanatic, and could tell when my favorite AOR station (KBCO in Boulder for a long time) so much as adjusted their playlist to, say, add more ‘80s songs or emphasize more new music. I’m nostalgic for the early Top 40 radio days, when every station had its own sing-songy jingles, cathphrases like “back to back tracks!” and “the hits just keep on comin’!” and huge, Grand Canyon-esque echo added to the rapid-yakking DJ’s voices.

Then I found the Reel Top 40 Repository, a treasure-trove of airchecks (recordings, often made by the DJs as part of their career “portfolios”). Many of the airchecks are “scoped,” so that only the DJ’s breaks and commercials are included, and you only hear the beginning and end of the songs. But some are full-length airchecks with all the songs. The site costs $12 a year (you can donate more), which is just $1 a month, to be able to listen to the airchecks, and for any boomer music fan or fan of radio as an industry, that’s a terrific price of admission to so much history.

You can search the repository for wonderful audio time-machines from major and minor radio stations from the early ‘60s to the ‘80s. You can search by city, year, DJ name, radio station call letters.

One of the most amazing recordings that I’ve found is a two-hour recording from July 20, 1969, of WPGC-FM, an FM station that at the time still played a Top-40 format. It was a Sunday morning broadcast featuring one of the station’s stalwart jocks, “Tiger” Bob Raleigh, riffing his way through the hits and also reading the news (in a much more subdued, serious voice and calling himself “Bob Raleigh, WPGC news”).

History buffs will recall that July 20, 1969 was just a couple of weeks off from Woodstock in August, but more important, that July 20 was the night that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

Another recording I enjoy listening to for historical perspective is San Francisco station KFRC’s broadcast from mid-day August 9, 1974 – the day Richard Nixon resigned because of Watergate, and Gerald Ford was sworn in as President.

What struck me about the 1969 radio artifact was that my brother Gary and I in all likelihood were actually listening to ”Tiger” Bob Raleigh that morning, since we lived in northern Virginia at the time and usually listened to WPGC’s “Good Guys Radio” team, and we certainly would have been listening to the radio on a Sunday morning.

I’ve gone over this recording a bunch of times now, and I just love it. It’s an incredible slice of history, even down to the dumb jokes, the commercials (some of which I remember), and of course, the music, most of which I remember.

One song in particular would not be playable today: “Big Bruce,” a novelty track spoof of the hit “Big Bad John” that tells the story of a gay man trapped in a beauty salon fire. Such is the passing of time, and the changing of cultural values. I wince at the song (it was actually a low-level regional hit), but I’m glad it’s captured as a reminder of the times. I’d forgotten completely about it.

Here’s a list of the songs on the two-hour recording from July 20, 1969. Note the egalitarian nature of the songs, from black and white artists, and reaching back to the Yardbirds’ proto-metal “Shape of Things” to the contemporary pop of Tom Jones’ “Love Me Tonight” and the Beatles’ early “Twist and Shout” to the cover version of the Beatles’ “Birthday” by Underground Sunshine (which was lousy but for some reason I owned it on a single):

“Don’t Wake Me Up in the Morning Michael” – Peppermint Rainbow
“Incense and Peppermint” – Strawberry Alarm Clock
“Working on a Groovy Thing” – 5th Dimension
“Hold on, I’m Coming” – Sam & Dave]
“Ma Cherie Amour” – Stevie Wonder
“634-5789” – Wilson Pickett
“Wait a Million Years” – Grass Roots
“Shape of Things” – Yardbirds
“Bad Moon on the Rise” – Creedence Clearwater Revival
“Step Out of Your Mind” – American Breed
“Albergavenny” – Shannon
“Love Is Like an Itch in My Heart” – Diana Ross & the Supremes
“In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)” – Zager & Evans
“Monkey Time” – Major Lance
“Love Me Tonight” – Tom Jones
“Sheila” – Tommy Roe
“Big Bruce” – Steve Greenberg (reached #97 on the Billboard charts)
“Twist and Shout” – Beatles
“Birthday” – Underground Sunshine
“Give Me One More Chance” – Wilmer and the Dukes
“Along Came Jones” – Ray Stevens
“You Better Run” – Young Rascals
“Give Peace a Chance” – John Lennon
“Turn, Turn, Turn” – Byrds
“Spinning Wheel” – Blood, Sweat and Tears
“Come and Get These Memories” – Martha and the Vandellas
“Color Him Father” – The Winstons
“No Milk Today” – Herman’s Hermits
“Let Yourself Go” – Friends of Distinction

A note to progressive FM radio fans: There are some sites out there that collect freeform and progressive rock radio airchecks but some require you to buy CDs if the airchecks (boo). One site,, has a “Jive Audio” section with some fabulous recordings of the jocks at legendary station KSAN in San Francisco, including an incredible hour with Tom Donahue, the acknowledged inventor of “freeform” radio in 1967. The recordings span the decades fomr the late ‘60s to the ‘80s.