Wednesday, March 30, 2005

It's All in the Call

Last month, everyone was talking about the 25th anniversary of the USA's upset victory in hockey over the Soviets in the 1980 Winter Olympics. Many forget that it was non-elimination game that didn't mean anything until the USA upset Finland two days later (Until 1992, the format for awarding Gold-Silver-Bronze in hockey did not resemble a playoff mode and instead was based on cumulative points against other teams that made the medal round).

Nevertheless, the 4-3 victory over the Soviets did give us one of the greatest calls in broadcast history. Yes, of course, I'm talking about "Do you believe in miracles?!" but those five words alone don't do it justice. To get the entire feel, you've got to take in Al Michaels from the 11-second mark:

"Eleven seconds, you got ten seconds, the countdown going on right now...Morrow up to Silk...five seconds left in the game! Do you believe in miracles? Yes!"

The game would have been no less significant without Al Michaels, but once we had his call, we could never relive the moment without it. This is why I believe there will always be a place for the radio DJ, no matter how many iPods are sold. If you don't believe that the right intro (or outro) can elevate a song, then you haven't been listening to the right radio hosts.

So what makes a great intro? It should you get psyched to hear the song. It should be tailored uniquely for that song. The right DJ can deliver their intro with just the right inflection, just the right tempo, just the right build-up and will know the just right instant to stop talking and let the music take over.

Fans of American Top 40 were treated to the art of the great into on a weekly basis. Of course, in many cases it was the producers filling in the music over the taped intros long after Casey had left the building, but that didn't diminish the beauty of the end product. I can still remember this one from around 9:35 AM on Sunday, November 7, 1982:

"Of the eight British acts in our survey, three are from the town of SHHHeffield! Paul Carrack who we heard at #37; Joe Cocker who appears at a higher position in our countdown; and the band at #35, here's ABC with The Look of Love!" (Note: For full effect try reading the above text over the intro of "The Look of Love," still one of the greatest musical intros of all time).

As much as I loved Casey, you have the respect the DJs who had to ad-lib on the fly. Here in New York, WCBS-FM used to have a program where they'd play the Top 20 from that week in a past year (i.e. on April 1, 2005 they might feature the Top 20 of April 1, 1972). I happened to be listening on Saturday Evening December 7, 1991 when they were playing the Top 20 from December 7, 1978. Since my sister was born on December 8, 1978, I figured I'd tape the show for her (No, I never got around to giving her the tape....serves her right for complaining that I overuse parentheses in my writings).

Recently, I gave the tape a listen because I remembered it had some great calls on it, and yes I do mean great! The DJ for the night was Mark Summers (not the Mark Summers who hosted Double-Dare and to whom I've been told I bear more than a slight resemblance) and he was on a roll. The best was when song #7, Alicia Bridges' "I Love the Nightlife" is fading out. "Yeah, Disco was big back then as we count down the Top 20 from December 7, 1978.....," and then as the unmistakable opening rifts of Foreigner's "Double Vision" begin, "........But so was ROCKNROLL BABY!!" Mark kept it going throughout the countdown. As "Double Vision" was fading out, right before Gino Vanneli's " I Just Wanna Stop came in at #5, he added "Who cares about double vision? With great rock and roll like that, you don't need to see!"

Sometimes an anticipated classic call disappoints. Just as Al Michaels had one one of the greatest sports calls of all times, I happened to be listening to the radio when I had what might have been one of the all-time worst. The night was July 31, 1990 and I had just listened to the Expos beat the Mets 7-4. Joe T. Mac (at least I think it was Joe T. Mac) was going through the wrap-up on WFAN and then announced that he had a surprise. We were going to pick up the feed for the 9th inning of the Texas-Milwaukee game, because the Rangers were up 11-3 and Nolan Ryan was going for win #300. And calling the game...the one and only Bob Uecker. Sure, Ueck was the play-by-play man for the Brewers, but Milwaukee had the game lost anyway and they weren't going anywhere and he was BOB UECKER! This was bound to be a great call.....Not! He treated the end of the game as just another frustrating Brewers loss and then acknowleged in passing that Nolan's teammates were congratulating him on the mound. The classic call of the night actually went to Joe T. Mac when they came back from the feed, "Whoa! Way to be emotional Euck!! I bet Mr. Belvedere could have done a better job!"

Sometimes it takes a little time to appreciate whether or not a call is classic. On Sunday Morning, September 29, 1985 my family was in the middle of our annual ritual of putting up the Sukkah (a clubhouse of sorts which commemorates the Jewish holiday of Sukkot). I knew I had to find an excuse to get inside for a coule of minutes around 9:1o or so, because I was expecting a once in a lifetime historical call that could not be missed. I had first heard The Hooters on WNEW in early June and then had seen their popularity spread in cult-like fashion all summer. I had them pegged as The Next Beatles and I knew that their first American Top 40 hit, "And We Danced" was about to debut at #38. No way was I missing Casey's call on this one. Well, the call was mediocre, "And We Danced" peaked at #21, the follow-up "Day By Day" made it to #18 and the band mustered only one more Top 40 single after that. "Nervous Night" is still a great album, but the band fell way short of my projected Beatlesque stature.

I've always admired Scott Shannon, not only for his own great calls but for his recognition of the art. He's one of the few DJs who will publicly laud other industry-mates on the air and even incorporate them into his routine. In the past, when he's played a song like Patrick Hernandez's "Born to be Alive" he'd intro it with "This is Paco on WKTU Disco 92." (An inside joke for those who used to listen to the OLD WKTU circa. 1981 when it occupied the 92.3 signal now possessed by K-Rock). And it's Scott and Todd's show that on an annual basis provides one of the greatest calls that one hears all year. On the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend, every year since at least 1993, shortly after 8 AM, Joe Nolan gives an amazing into to "Born to Run" that officially welcomes in summer. Every year it seems to get a little bit longer and a little bit better, but the basic theme is always the same. "It's 1976, (as the opening drumroll kicks in) whether you're in Atlantic Highlands, Point Pleasant, Asbury Park or Long Branch, it's summer...and Bruce is on the radio!"

Now there's something you can't get on an IPod.