Everybody says that
As the song on the radio ends, the dj picks up the phone and says, “Majic all-request weekend.”
Yes, that’s “majic” with a “j” because the station was WMJI and that’s how we did things back then.
“Hi,” says the listener, “this is Chris from Independence. Can you play Green Onions by Booker T and the MG’s?”
Before the listener has finished making the request you can hear the song being played underneath the call.
As a listener, it was - well - majic.
And then I left WDMT to work for WMJI and came in early for my first shift during an all-request weekend.
I imagined it was going to be a mess.
First of all, listeners often mangled the names of songs. We’d get requests for “Up Where We Belong” from listeners who would ask us to play “Love lifters”.
“Love lifters?” we’d ask.
“Yes,” they’d say emboldened, “you know,” and then they’d sing the chorus with what they understood the lyrics to be, “Love lifters up where we belong.”
So the fact that they knew the name of the song and the artist seemed like a stretch.
I hadn’t really thought about it but of course I knew the calls had to be recorded in advance.
This allowed the dj to get exactly what they needed from the listener.
DJ - sorry by then we were called “air personalities” as we weren’t really disc jockeys anymore.
When I got to Majic each song we played was on a numbered cart.
The log was a list of the songs we played during the hour. The log was a computer printout that listed the cart number, the name of the artist, and the name of the song. Notes allowed pronunciations to be added to artists or songs whose names might be unfamiliar to us.
I’d come from WDMT where we had color coded carts that were stacked next to us by color. The clock in front of us had different color codes for each part of the hour. A yellow song is up next - then we reached over to the “stay-current” category and picked one of the bottom two songs in the stack. Stay-current were those songs that had been big hits that our listeners still wanted to hear - just not every ninety minutes.
Once we played the song we put it back on the top of the stack. Once a week the music director would make adjustments. Some songs would move up. Some would move down.
I’ve mentioned that I’m working on an app that allows you to build your own stations based on this.
“But Daniel,” you say, “you’ve just given your idea away for free. Someone else will build it.”
That’s ok. Then I’ll buy theirs instead of building mine. It’s something I want to see out in the world - it doesn’t have to be something I build.
Anyway - back to Majic. The requests were recorded in advance.
If the listener messed up, they could record it again. That’s how all of the requests could end with the DJ - sorry, air personality - saying something like, “who plays your favorite hits of yesterday and today” and the listener responding “Cleveland’s Magic 1-0-5-point-7” just as the intro of the song finished.
We played around fourteen songs an hour. And even during the all-request weekends almost none of them were really requests.
“But Daniel,” you say, “that can’t be right. I heard the requests.”
Sure. Chris from Independence would call in and say, “I want to hear Love Lifters.”
We’d say, “sorry Chris, we just played that” or “sorry Chris, this is an oldies weekend we’re not playing that.”
Before Chris even had time to be disappointed we’d say, “But I’ve got Green Onions coming up from Booker T and the MGs. Would you like to request that one on the air?”
The listener almost always said “yes”.
Really they just wanted their voice on the air and if it was something we played, they probably liked it.
“OK Chris,” we’d say, “I’m going to start recording our call. I’ll answer the call, you tell me who you are and where you’re calling from and what you want to hear.”
“Great,” Chris would say.
“And Chris,” we’d say, “do you know what you’re supposed to say when I ask you who plays your favorites of yesterday and today?”
The next thing you know, you’d hear Chris on the air asking for Green Onions while the opening played quietly under the phone call.
2% or less
So why didn’t we play requests?
Most people who listen to radio stations never call in.
By most I mean more than 99% of a station’s listeners have never called in.
Most stations do a fair amount of research and know what songs test well with their audience. Stations have program directors and music directors who understand the research and have a feeling for the music and how it should be scheduled.
The stations hire consultants and watch buying patterns through various charts.
We’re not about to let Chris from Independence program our station.
It turns out that this is true in many settings. I was part of the group that launched the java.net website.
Now defunct, it was a really great site for the Java community that was run by Sun Microsystems, O’Reilly (the book people), and Collabnet.
We had blogs - before blogs were mainstream. We had paid articles - when sites still paid for content. We had an active community with community managers who surfaced activity that the site editors could highlight on the front page.
In the early meetings with Collabnet they talked to us about working with communities and making sure that these felt safe and welcoming. One of the things they made clear was that we’d only hear from 2% of the community at most and we should make sure we were serving the whole community.
It was our jobs as editors to provide a friendly site with lots of content and conversation. We provided a fresh homepage five days a week and wrote a personal note much like this one for each one of those days.
The missing 98%
What’s wrong with social media is that Chris from Independence tweets and has an active Facebook account.
Chris posts pictures of enjoyable meals and favorite songs.
We think we know Chris. Chris is just like us. We’ve friended Chris. We’ve liked the things that Chris has posted.
But Chris retweets and shares things that sound right to Chris.
This sciencey thing sounds right to Chris so there it is in our feed.
Chris doesn’t know if this thing about a famous politician is right or not but it made Chris smile or nod so now we have it to.
There’s an article that Chris has passed on to us. Chris didn’t read the article but the headline sounded right so there it is in the stack of things we must read or scroll by.
More than half of the things that Chris passes on were passed on by someone else that Chris follows - and not all of them are even real people.
We wouldn’t let Chris from Independence select the music on our radio station - why are we letting Chris program us?
It doesn’t take many Chris’ until we start to think that “everybody thinks” something or “everybody says” something.
You need to be your own music director and carefully choose what goes into your playlist.
It’s often a very small number of people but we’re letting them have undue influence.
The posts from these people make up the rotation you listen to all day.
Remember, Chris from Independence thought the song was called Love Lifters.
Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 86. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe