Monday, April 25, 2011

My Favorite Request

In the early 80s, before I became a morning show host, I was the nighttime disc jockey at WHCN/Hartford, on the air six nights a week. Evenings were a big daypart for rock radio because, in world of limited media choices, that's when teenagers turned to radio for their shared experience.

Most nights, the phone lines were pretty active and, since I was the only one in the building after the daytime crew had gone home, I answered every call, and that meant a lot of requests. WHCN was a pretty heavily-formatted station, so I didn't have a lot of leeway when it came to which songs I was going to play. That was fine with me, because I was always more interested in what I was going to say between the songs, but occasionally I'd slip in something special for a listener as long as it didn't stray too far from the core of songs that made up our playlist.

The majority of requests were for whatever the most popular rock songs were at the time, along with the usual perennials ("Stairway to Heaven," "Freebird," "Born To Run," etc.). Some nights I'd hear from one guy who was a major Frank Zappa fan. We didn't play any Zappa -- I don't remember there even being a single Zappa album in the station's library -- but he'd call once or twice every week to ask for "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow" or "Moving To Montana." I'd tell him the same thing I told everyone, "I'll see if I can get to it," but the playlist remained Zappa-less. That didn't dissuade him, though.  He either didn't catch on that I was never going to play it, or he was convinced that, by calling repeatedly, he'd break me down until I did.  But I didn't.

The truth is that, even if I hosted a show that was all by request, I still couldn't have played every song listeners called for. At night, the WHCN format had room for about 12 or 13 songs an hour (fewer if they were as long as "Roundabout" by Yes, more if they were as short as anything by The Kinks). In an average hour, I answered between 25 and 30 phone calls. So if I guaranteed everyone that I would play their song, it would be impossible to live up to that promise after just a single hour, unless they kept listening all night -- and if I didn't take any other requests.

Quite often, I'd get requests for songs or artists I was going to play in the rotation anyway. If you called for Bruce Springsteen or Elvis Costello or The Police or Pink Floyd, there was a pretty good chance they were coming up soon. So, in between cuing up the records, playing commercials, reading promotional announcements, and whatever silly bits I could squeeze into the evening (e.g. a weekly parody of "Hill Street Blues"), I also recorded every incoming phone call and played back the appropriate ones to help introduce songs and break up the evening. That gave me a chance to ad-lib with listeners, many of whom caught on to what I was looking for and would give me something funny or interesting to use on the air.

If you'd been listening one night in 1982, you might have heard me come out of a commercial break by reading a memo from my boss announcing a brand new contest called "Million Dollar Instant Request Challenge," in which I promised to pay you a million bucks if I didn't play the song you requested instantly. It was a joke, since the phone call with the request was already recorded and the song they wanted was cued up and ready to go, but it made the phones explode with other listeners who wanted to try to stump me and win the money. I waited about 15 minutes before explaining on the air that I had mis-read the memo, and that the boss had called to explain that the challenge was that any listener who paid a million dollars could have any song they wanted played instantly. That slowed down the phone calls, but some of my more clever listeners called to ask how much they'd have to pay to have their request played a minute or two later instead of instantly.

I started referring to my listeners as The World's Most Intelligent Audience, an appellation I also used years later in Washington DC and St. Louis. I joked that I could ask any question on the air (long before the era of Google and Wikipedia) and someone would call in with the answer. I had regulars who told jokes, casual callers who just wanted me to give a shout out to their high school, and young lovers who wanted to hear songs dedicated to their boyfriend or girlfriend -- such as the night I got my favorite request of all time.

I answered the WHCN listener line and a teenage girl asked if I'd play a special song for a special day. Before asking what song she wanted, I asked what the occasion was. Speaking very quickly, she explained that it was the anniversary of the first time she went out with her boyfriend who was the most fantastic guy in the world, and now, a year later, she really loved him and he really loved her and she had just spend an hour on the phone with him when she was supposed to be doing homework but they were both listening to my show and would I please dedicate a song that always reminded her of him?  As I always did, I said I'd try, and asked what the song was.

She replied, "It's called 'Godzilla.'"

The song, by Blue Oyster Cult, was as far from a love song as you could get, yet it reminded her of her boyfriend? This one was going on the air right away.

I hung up the phone, and reached back to the B section of the record library, where I located the album quickly. I cued up the song with one hand while I rewound the tape with the other and, as the previous record was ending, hit the play button, putting our conversation on the air. When she got to the punchline, er, song title, I hit the start button on the turntable and BOC's opening power chord rang out on the airwaves as I doubled over in laughter.

She didn't get a million dollars, but she got her instant request.