Radio: Bob Dylan, Program Director

I love to watch the legendary, brilliant programmer Lee Abrams talk about Bob Dylan's XM Satellite radio show "Theme Time Radio Hour" which is heard on XM's Deep Tracks channel every Wednesday at 10 a.m. EDT.

Now that's a great reason to have satellite radio.

Dylan's show was the topic of a Friday Wall Street Journal article which describes it as "Each week Mr. Dylan plucks a topic out of the air -- colors, trains, death and taxes, spring cleaning -- and plays recordings of a dozen songs whose lyrics relate to it in some way. In between songs he chats about the music and its makers, interspersing his gnomic mini-lectures with a cornucopia of old radio station promos, celebrity vignettes and phony phone calls and email readings".

Reporter Terry Teachout noted that on a recent episode Dylan "played, among other things, Jackson Browne's "Doctor My Eyes," B.B. King's "Walking Doctor Bill," Doc Pomus's "Send for the Doctor," the Rolling Stones' "Dear Doctor," the White Stripes' "Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine," an obscure 1955 calypso song by Lord Lebby called "Dr. Kinsey Report," and "Hadacol Boogie," a jumping ditty recorded in 1949 by Bill Nettles and the Dixie Blue Boys whose subject was the once-celebrated patent medicine touted by its maker as a cure-all for "stomach disturbances, gas, heartburn, indigestion, nagging aches and pains, and certain nervous disorders."

Actually, Dylan's approach to radio has not gone unnoticed by young people.

Many of my USC students last year were aware of the show even if they hadn't actually heard it. And some heard it -- even though they were not satellite radio subscribers. Their parents were.

I'm not surprised.

One of the many reasons radio has lost the next generation is that music stations are unremarkable. They are vanilla. Sound the same. Too repetitious. Too many commercials. Too phony. Not real.

After four years of my teaching sabbatical -- I have concluded that if I owned a radio station, I'd get to know what these young folks really want -- even if it is unlikely that they would ever become big radio listeners.

1. Someone knowledgeable about the music. In local markets that obviously can't afford a Bob Dylan, who is the guy or gal who is the most knowledgeable and put them on the air? By the way, local works even better than national but for a satellite network the highly-rated Bob Dylan show is perfect for their mission.

2. They want the dj expert to play their own records. Now I know a lot of my radio friends have gone into cardiac arrest on this one. Damned if they are ever going to let someone bring their own music to the station. Well, apparently that's what Bob Dylan does. That's what Dave Herman did at the prototypical progressive rock station WMMR in Philadelphia back in the Sixties. That's what Don K. Reed did when he did the Doo Wop Shop on WCBS-FM in its last life.

3. A sense of adventure. Teachout talks about this in his article. When was the last time a listener got a sense of adventure when listening to the radio? Duh! They didn't. That's why they turned to iPods -- that have no sense of adventure, but they also have no commercials and exactly the songs young listeners want to hear.

4. Unpredictability. It doesn't take a PD to know what the second half hour of a radio station is going to sound like -- the first half hour! And on and on.

Here's what's got me pumped.

Radio knows how to do this. Abrams, the old die-hard that he is (in spite of the fact that he now professes to be newspaperman for Randy Michaels Tribune Company) knows all of this.

Consolidators do not.

Need proof? Just turn on the radio.

They have sucked the life out of their program directors, many of whom have their hands full hanging onto their jobs and can't risk telling the boss the station needs to innovate.

So, let's all try this together.

• Sunday night -- at 9 pm -- really safe time -- put an local music expert on the air in your market. I don't care if it's market #156 or #1.

• Let him or her play their own music -- do their own thing without the genre of your musical format.

• Break all the rules -- be unpredictable.

Try it for a year.

Let me stop right here. I know I'm nuts. I know I am talking to myself. But that's one of the gifts that Clear Channel gave me six years ago so stay with me on this, okay.

One year.

No interference.

Watch the audience build.

Watch some agency person come to you to inquire about advertising.

And, for God's sake, don't run spots. Figure out a new way to deliver the commercial message effectively.

Radio's glorious age of top 40 -- WABC, WLS, WIL, KHJ and many others were perfect for its time -- the age of the jukebox when TV had reared its ugly head into radio's world.

Now, the opportunity is out there to throw out the liner cards, promos, sweepers, IDs, positioners and do what one of the most prolific musicians of the rock era does.

Make good radio by not being radio as usual.

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