In the spring of 82, I started tuning in regularly to WLAP-FM, 94.5 on the dial. We lived about 60 miles north of Lexington, just on the edge of a viable signal. I listened mainly on the clock radio in my bedroom. My inclination toward recognizing order and patterns clicked in over those first weeks after I began listening. The format was strictly Top 40, but there were no DJs–it was fully automated, with music provided by some distant vendor. After each of their four hourly commercial breaks, they’d play two current hits, followed by one or two recurrent songs or oldies (they went back as far as the early 70s, IIRC). Over the course of the next few months, I figured out:
- Current hits were divided into two sets; I called them Type I and Type II.
- Each song in a pair played together was of the same Type.
- They alternated Type I and Type II pairs throughout the day.
- A current hits tape consisted of ten pairs of songs all of one Type, so it would take five hours to run through two tapes, one of each Type.
- There were six tapes of each Type eligible for play at any one time.
- New tapes cycled in each week. One week, the station would introduce two new tapes of each Type, and the following week, they’d introduce just one of each. Thus, any one tape had a four-week lifespan on the station.
- Individual songs could be paired with a variety of songs of its own Type, but would almost always appear in one of four sets of positions on a tape: somewhere in pairs 1-4 (A), pairs 3-6 (B), pairs 5-8 (C), or pairs 7-10 (D).
The same voice was used on all the tapes to announce songs. Much of the time, he’d interpose himself between them: “That was ‘Truly’ by Lionel Richie; now, here’s Fleetwood Mac, with ‘Gypsy.’” After I moved to college that fall, I got good pretty quickly at identifying the orders of the songs on all twelve tapes in play at any one time, so that when a set of tapes started, I could bore all of my friends with pre-announcements of what was coming on after each break for the following 4.5 hours.
One of my fellow DJs at WTLX called WLAP “Robbie the Robot Radio” (this is the same guy who lit a firecracker atop a 45 of a song he didn’t like WHILE IT WAS ON THE TURNTABLE down at the station). While it’s hard to disagree with this characterization, I was really into it for a couple of years (it probably helped maintain my interest in Top 40 songs during this period).
Toward the end of 83 or beginning of 84, I noticed that they were sometimes playing only one current song per segment instead of two. I called the station to ask about it and got to speak with Ralph Hacker, the station director at the time (yes, that Ralph Hacker, who announced UK basketball for a number of years). He told me that new songs were getting too long, and that they wanted more time for the recurrent tunes. I also was somehow able to work into our conversation what I described above about their modus operandi with current hits. He allowed that I was largely correct but seemed to think it wasn’t quite as rigidly structured as I made out. Not long after this a passel of TLX jocks got to go on a tour of the WLAP studios (whether I or Kevin, the WTLX manager, got the ball rolling, I don’t recall); we even got to see the famed automated reel tape decks!
Some weeks after this WLAP made an even bigger change to how they played the current hits. It was still automated, but “the voice” changed, maybe even largely disappeared, and the patterns didn’t seem to hold quite so much. I lost interest fairly quickly, though maybe a good part of it was an ongoing changes in my musical tastes (I was starting to buy albums much more frequently beginning at about this time, but that’s a whole ‘nother story). I didn’t listen to WLAP very much at all my last couple of years in college.
So, what does this have to do with the music of September 86? I heard you asking three paragraphs ago, but I was ignoring you. I’m getting to it now, I promise!
Forward to September 86 (see?). I had been at Illinois for a few weeks and classes were well underway. I didn’t have any teaching duties during my first year, which locked me out of some bonding opportunities with my fellow newbie grad students. It would be January before I started making close, lasting friendships. That fall I spent many lonely evenings in my closet of a dorm room; at some point I started surfing on my portable radio. I stumbled across a Top 40 station–I don’t know if I ever knew its call letters–from another city, likely Bloomington-Normal. They were employing some variant of Robbie! I didn’t get hooked like I had years before, but I did check it out regularly. “All Cried Out” (#26, heading to #8) was one of the songs that station introduced to me. It’s the piano and synth outro that I especially remember. Those closing seconds still make me feel a cold autumn breeze from the northwest, and I think of the chemical stink from the Kraft cheese production plant in town that drifted over campus on that wind (it sure didn’t smell like cheese).
Those first months in Chambana more or less comprised my final steady forays into Top 40 radio listening. It was good to have one last fling with the robot.