When we were in our later grade school years, owning a transistor radio was just about the coolest thing ever. You did not have to stay home and listen to a radio that was plugged into a wall, you could actually carry the radio around with you and listen to it just about anywhere. Yes, the reception was not real good everywhere you went, but it was still better than having to stay in one spot.
Imagine, walking around with a cordless device and listening to your music! This little device could fit into large pockets and was powered by a rectangular 9-volt battery. Life was good. The radios were so cheap you could save up for one, or annoy your parents until they got you one.
A good model came with an earphone. It was much like the earbuds they give you on plane rides, except it only had one for one ear. Apparently, technology had not yet advanced to the two ear stage. It didn’t matter back then, as long as you had one. If you got a model that would fit in your shirt pocket, and then you stuck one earbud in an ear, you might resemble someone with a “hearing aid.” No matter, you were still cool.
Your radio only received the AM band. You still had to sit at home to listen to FM radio. That was unimportant as there was nothing on the FM band for teenagers. There may have been some jazz stations, and a classical station or two, and a lot of stations you had trouble tuning in. Who needed that when we had advanced to the age of the transistor?
The AM stations played the popular music of the day. Two of them were very popular with teenagers and cool people all over our town. One was WLS (World’s Largest Store, as in Sears) that had welcomed rock and pop and everything cool, man. The other was WCFL (as in Chicago Federation of Labor).
Yeah, it started out to be something else.
These top 40 stations were groovy. They introduced us to the best acts: The Dixie Cups, The Serendipity Singers, The Shangri-Las and The Trashmen (seriously). Oh Yes, and we heard those other acts we still hear today: The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Four Seasons, Jay and the Americans and someone named Barbra Streisand. It was the good old days. We just didn’t know it then.
At night when you were supposed to be in bed sleeping, you could put the radio under your pillow and listen to one of your stations through the pillow. This muffled the sound enough so nosey parents could not hear it. You could then stay up past 10 PM and hear the late night DJ.
Silver Dollar Survey
Top 40 radio was just an idea, a concept. It seemed like they did not actually have 40 songs. You would hear the top songs many times throughout the day. Approximately 10 songs were in heavy rotation. If you loved one of the top songs, you did not have to worry about missing it.
WLS AM 890 did actually count down the top 40 every Friday afternoon. In an era of 2 and a half-minute records, it was doable in the afternoon drive slot. Many of us would rush to a nearby record store to get a printed copy of the “Silver Dollar Survey.” Then we would have the top 40 for the week, although we were unlikely to hear the ones at the bottom if we missed the countdown.
The survey was allegedly based on record sales. Local acts seemed to do well. Perhaps they were not big outside the midwest. We didn’t care. If a group we had heard of was playing at a high school “sock hop,” then that was the place to be. Radio gave us our music and our cultural interests. I guess it was not hard to sway a 14 or 15-year-old toward certain records. It is the same today
Now the top 40 stations are on the FM channels and streaming services. Again, they are not really top 40, but a handful of songs in heavy rotation. Turn them on now and listen to Post Malone, Cardi B, Ariana Grande, Maroon 5, Halsey, Panic! At the Disco, Drake, maybe even Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran. You may ask, why do I know this handful of stars and their songs?
It seems that everyone 25 and under who rides in my car has also anointed himself the music director. This may mean a change to B-96 or 93.5 Latino Mix! If there are too many commercials, we can also choose 103.5, I Heart Radio which contains a lot of commercials for themselves. In the afternoon, we can catch the ubiquitous Ryan Seacrest.
The format is the same. Young people sing and/or dance along to a handful of songs. Stations try to lead you to their favorite stars. If people 15 to 25 buy singles, they are downloads, not 45s. If they buy an album, that too is likely a download rather than an album on vinyl or a CD. They may forego that to purchase a streaming service, although many are free.
The technology has changed, but the appeal of Top 40, which is really Top 10 or so, has remained. With all of the music options, the release, and ranking of songs, whether if be on FM or online, seems to be important to the demographic that buys music in one form or another.
Top 40 is where we developed a love of music. It is those songs that harken us back to the “good old days” when we were able to carry our music around with us. Radio was then, and still is to many, our portal to the music that will stay with us. The Beach Boys said in their 50th-anniversary album, “That’s Why God Made The Radio.” It’s a good song by a group that remembered why they made music 50 years earlier:
If you want to see the Beach Boys perform the song on the 50th-anniversary tour, click here.
Note: Today WLS is conservative talk radio, and WCFL is no more. That frequency is WMVP, ESPN 1000.