Rock Radio Remembers David Bowie: He 'Made Different Hip'

david-bowie-1976-hat-billboard-650
Terry O'Neill/Getty Images

David Bowie photographed in 1976.

Programmers and DJs share memories of the format icon.

Along with his 26 charted titles on the Billboard Hot 100, David Bowie was one of rock radio's stalwarts from the '70s onward, racking up multiple top 10 hits on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Songs chart and remaining a presence on adult alternative airwaves right up to his passing Sunday, Jan. 10, of liver cancer.

In tribute to the musician's illustrious career, programmers and on-air talent at adult alternative stations across the United States relayed fond memories to Billboard about the man behind "Let's Dance," "China Girl," "Fame" and many other classics. Even before his death, his new album Blackstar, released on his 69th birthday last Friday (Jan. 8), had begun to impact playlists.

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"It's hard," Rita Houston, program director of Fordham University's WFUV New York, told Billboard. "He was so important to this whole New York scene in the '70s. All these artists who pushed the envelope forward in terms of art, style, music, gender defining ... Bowie was at the heart of that."

Houston added that Blackstar was already planned as an addition to WFUV's playlist, noting that the fact that such a release (which Billboard's album review calls "a strange, perverse thing, the latest move in a boundlessly unpredictable career") is even considered for airplay "really says something about who he was as an artist." Sure enough, radio single "Lazarus" received 109 spins across all formats in the tracking week ending Jan. 10, according to Nielsen Music, with WFUV one of the song's biggest cheerleaders at 13 plays; only KCMP Minneapolis played it more in that span: 16 times.

Renee Richardson, music director of KFOG San Francisco, called Bowie one of the station's core artists, sharing a tale from KFOG folklore. "One of the guys who was around when KFOG flipped to rock 30 years ago told a story. Once, someone with an English accent called and requested a very obscure song. Years later, David came by the station and said, 'Thank you, guy, I wanted to hear an obscure song and you guys played it for me." (Unfortunately, Richardson said the name of the song requested has been lost over the years.)

At WAPS Akron, Ohio, pd Brad Savage said he and his staff were sifting through a large catalog of Bowie's CDs and vinyl Monday. "Morning host Bill Hall brought in some of his own collection, including the awesome 'Fame '90' single/EP, including the remix with Queen Latifah. We're playing at least one song per hour and a nice tribute on the 5 p.m. Quality Rock Ride Home. I'm also locating songs with Bowie mentions and covers, such as Veruca Salt's 'With David Bowie,' Nirvana's cover of 'The Man Who Sold the World' and Mott the Hoople's 'All the Young Dudes.'"

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Lin Brehmer, morning host at WXRT Chicago, has new perspective on "Lazarus" following Bowie's passing. "When we first heard 'Lazarus,' we were taken aback by its pacing," he said. "It sounds like a dirge, I thought. By Monday, it all made sense. In hindsight, lines like 'I'm in heaven now' are startling in their transparency. He was, to borrow a phrase, busy dying.

"I started college in 1972, the year of Ziggy Stardust," Brehmer continued. "That luminous presence on the album cover ... Those kick-ass gems on the album … I was all in. Over the years, I interviewed David Bowie twice. When you talk to a musician of that magnitude, you are always a bit tentative. But he was downright jovial. He was self-deprecating. He told stories of watching TV with Moby when they lived near each other in Manhattan. When he talked about music and the world it framed, he was deeply perceptive.

"When I woke up [Monday] morning and checked my phone, I realized it was one of those days where we had to step up," Brehmer said. "My long-time news anchor Mary Dixon wrapped Bowie's legacy into moving encomiums. My producer dug out old 'XRT interviews. When the 'David Bowie Is' exhibit came to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, we had gathered commentary on his life from Bono, Billy Corgan, Glen Hansard, Julian Lennon, Bryan Ferry and whoever else happened to be passing through town.

"So, [Monday] we revisited Bono comparing the emergence of Bowie in England and Ireland to the emergence of Elvis Presley in America. We cannot underestimate the cultural importance of a rock star who validated all forms of sexual identity. Gay. Straight. Transgender. Bi. And this decades before same-sex marriage was a reality. Back in my college years, I remember walking by the hockey fraternity on a Saturday afternoon. They were blasting Ziggy Stardust on the porch. I thought to myself, 'Do these bros have any idea what this singer looks like?' In the end, it didn't matter. In the end, it was all about the rock and roll."

Alex Cortright, morning talent on WTMD Baltimore, echoed praise of Bowie's barrier-breaking uniqueness. "The first album I ever bought, with my own hard-earned lawn-mowing money, was Ziggy Stardust. For me, he was the personification of artistic ambition: restless, innovative and always eager to lean into the future. Through the many personas and musical shapeshifts, his songs were always good: catchy, provocative and cool. Bowie made 'different' hip, and, for a young person listening, that was powerful stuff. He was cool incarnate. To the normal human, his prodigious talent probably seemed alien (and, boy, did he play that role with gusto!) Musician and songwriter, actor and performer, artist and trendsetter. Few approach this level of accomplishment and fewer still do it with such style, wit and kindness."

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The news of Bowie's death, like for most, came as a shock to WNCS Burlington, Vt., pd Zeb Norris, as Bowie had not shared his illness with the world. "But, he'd been reclusive in recent years, so, in a way, not knowing of his ill health was fitting,"' Norris said. "More than a musician, more than a rock star, more than an actor or celebrity, David Bowie was one of the most important artists of our times.

"We featured Bowie's music extensively throughout our [Monday] morning show and beyond, playing hits like 'Changes,' 'Space Oddity' and 'Let's Dance'; his newest single 'Lazarus'; and deep tracks like 'Rock & Roll Suicide,' 'The Width of a Circle,' '1985' and 'Cat People.'

"We'll miss David," Norris said. "But, his music will live on and is influence is heard in the vast majority of artists featured on adult alternative radio. RIP David Bowie. Say 'hi' to John Lennon, Mick Ronson and Andy Warhol for us!"

"David Bowie put the 'modern' in modern rock, long before there was such a term," mused Sky Daniels, KCSN Los Angeles pd. "Bowie and Bryan Ferry were my personal heroes when I first began to pursue a career in radio.  There is a heartfelt pain I cannot describe. Many members of our audience are in the age group that recognized firsthand the impact that Bowie had on challenging rock's status quo.

"It is almost unimaginable that on the  weekend of his new release, he would be gone suddenly. Once again, he was charting new territory. He was doing it without hype or premeditated fanfare, as he did on his last studio album (2013's The Next Day, which became his highest-peaking entry on the Billboard 200, debuting and peaking at No. 2).

"David Bowie, like Little Richard, Elvis Presley and The Beatles before him, defined the image of a rock star. As he grew older, he did not need to be calculated in creating personas. He was greater than any persona he could manufacture."


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