Sunday, May 10, 2009

Chuck the Writer Finds a Blast From His Past on Google

Bear with me on this one.

I'm bouncing around Google's "Books" section, and I discover that Google has digitally scanned thousands of issues of Billboard magazine. So if you ever want to know what song was #1 on the pop charts in whatever year, chances are it's listed in one of the issues Google scanned.

And surprisingly to me... they scanned this issue.

Background. I was in college in the early 1980's; by my freshman year, I was working at the college's radio station, WHCL. It was an extremely low-powered station, its miserable 5-watt range meant you couldn't pick it up on the other side of the campus, and most of the record companies had completely given up on sending us any new records (and what few records anybody had disappeared out of the libraries as part of an unnamed "seniors get to take what they want" ethos). But for me, WHCL was a haven away from feeling like an on-campus fish out of water.

By my sophomore year, I had earned a couple of on-air timeslots (including a Friday night "Nightowl Radio Show," a mixture of whatever records I could scrounge from my own personal collection). Now at that time, Billboard ran an article about the benefits of college radio as a way to get that "new music" out to the airwaves, a chance to get untested and previously unheard tracks out to the general public. This was not unusual - despite its limited record company inventory, WHCL's DJ's kept the station listenable by, in many cases, bringing in their own music.

So, just for a lark, I wrote a short editorial about the benefits of college radio as a promotional tool for the music industry. I sent it off to Billboard and didn't think anything else of it.

Around mid-October, I received a telephone call. It was from the editor of Billboard's editorial department, asking me to send a photograph of myself, as the letter I wrote was going to be used as a guest editorial for Billboard.

It took a minute for that to sink in. But only a moment.

First I had to find someone who had a photograph of me (remember, this was back in the 1980's, there was no "digital photography" and you had to develop the film and blah blah blah). A campus friend did have a photo, and I immediately sent it off to New York.

Lo and behold, the article ran - but not in just any issue. It ran in Billboard's most popular issue of the year, the "year-end" issue with the cumulative charts for all of 1982. Hokey smokes.

Suddenly, our little radio station picked up some national notice. We started getting more and more records in the mail. And not just from teeny-weeny companies who accidentally had us on their mailing list. Warner Brothers started sending us stuff. So did RCA. And CBS. And Motown. And A&M. Eventually we started receiving material from Virgin - the UK version of Virgin. We received albums from Attic Records in Canada. And Festival / Mushroom records in Australia. The stuff was coming in faster than it could be cataloged!

Our station's broadcast frequency also improved. By 1984, we were up to 205 watts of power; a year later, we were thumping the dials at 270 watts, and could be picked up on the New York State Thruway between exits 30 and 33. Swank!

So I read that article once again, an article that preceded mp3's and DVD's and Compact Discs and the perceived death of the 8-track tape. I recalled all the old names of artists and groups we played back in those WHCL days, many of whom are still on my iPod today.

Some of the things seem so antiquated - a discussion of "tracking," a practice where radio stations would play both sides of an album, uninterrupted, which allowed listeners to "tape" the LP and never have to spend money to buy the album. At the time, a radio station in Washington, D.C. was tracking albums like crazy, while record companies like Chrysalis (who at the time had Blondie and Pat Benatar) were threatening to cut off the supply of fresh records to radio stations who "tracked" their product. And you thought Napster was original? Why do you think college kids bought chromium TDK and Maxell tapes? To archive their professors' lectures?

But something alone stands out from that article. something entirely.

That photograph of me.

Jeez o' Petes, I had one nasty, screwed-up hairstyle in college. And oh God, those godawful windshield eyeglasses. And is that a soul patch? Christ, I looked like Shaggy if he HADN'T dropped that acid and discovered that dogs could talk!

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