“Why is it that they only show interest in an artist after their death?”
That was the question posed by the assistant PD of a “Greatest Hits” radio station I consulted (and oversaw music for) in June 2012. Whitney Houston’s death earlier that year, and the ongoing resurgence of Michael Jackson at radio, had well established the morbid fascination of some listeners.
But I also knew the APD meant “they” in the second person. It was the afternoon of Fleetwood Mac member Bob Welch’s death, and I had just sent the station “Ebony Eyes” to play. A day earlier, it would have been a programmer indulgence on this station that “played the hits.” But I was saddened by Welch’s suicide. And it would have been lame to report the news and play some other artist, right? I understood my APD’s cynicism, but I also wanted to give an artist I cared about his moment.
Programmers have had to consider these issues a lot recently. I was taken aback in a similar way when Three Dog Night’s Cory Wells died last October. In a deliberately egalitarian band, Wells was a consistent hitmaker but never a star. So there was a wallop in realizing that Wells was 74 when he died of blood cancer. It had never occurred to me that a member of Three Dog Night could die if not of old age, in his old age. But many ‘70s acts had spent years making it. It was sobering to realize how many of those performers were well into their 70s now.
And if you’re wondering why, when we’ve lost Natalie Cole, David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Paul Kantner and Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White in short succession, I’m writing about less heralded passings, well, that’s the point. The last five weeks have been dismayingly like the “In Memoriam” segment of an awards show when the audience just can’t hold its applause until the end, and each life’s work is subjected to a popularity contest.
It was especially noticeable with Cole, who was as important to me as any artist in the mid-to-late ‘70s, but whose dozen hits had been honed to just “This Will Be” at radio. The obituaries were facile—most seizing on an arc from R&B stardom to the adult standards of her father Nat King Cole. But if you grew up hearing “Inseparable,” or even gave any thought to the name of the song itself, you knew that “Unforgettable” was always on her mind. Cole was a great life story as well, interrupting a downward trajectory that once seemed as inexorable as Whitney Houston. Little of that was said.
Programmers of Classic Rock, Classic Hits and Jammin’ Oldies stations must consider how to better give acts their moment, especially knowing how many more times they are likely to deal with the passing of a well-known artist going forward. Even those artists not famous for hard living are reaching an age when that no longer matters. And if few listeners did the math because of Cory Wells, many have been unable to avoid similar realizations over the last five weeks.
The first issue is logistical, like anything else that happens when radio is no longer live and locally staffed. Cole died on a holiday weekend, but even the late-afternoon announcement of Frey’s death meant that some stations didn’t fully respond until the following morning. At a time when any song is available anywhere, those listeners who choose the radio are looking to commiserate with another music lover. It would not be crazy for radio stations to have tributes prepared, newspaper style, for any artist. These days, if you encounter a live person, it may be somebody clearly not of the right generation clumsily reading a Wikipedia bio. Fortunately, the exact right person, R&B radio veteran Donnie Simpson, was on the air at WMMJ (Magic 102.3) Washington, D.C., for Maurice White’s appreciation.
And then, programmers have the seemingly contradictory task of figuring out how gold-based formats that are meant to be an escape from the passage of time can avoid seemingly constantly elegiac to listeners. My best solution so far is a better representation and appreciation of all veteran hit makers while they are among us. Some acts were a bigger part of listeners’ lives than others, but all were important to listeners for at least three-and-a-half minutes.
That includes, within reasonable programming judgment, a refusal to let legendary catalogs be whittled to one or two songs. Aretha Franklin’s Kennedy Center Honors’ version of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” showed up on the Facebook pages of friends of all ages. None of them seemed to be discovering the song for the first time, or concerned that it wasn’t “Respect.” And despite programmers’ determination to replace their few lingering ‘60s titles with the ‘90s, once and for all, nobody suggested that Carole King would have been better saluted by, say, Blues Traveler. Carefully managed variety and finding the artist story or contemporary relevance in any song played cannot be a bad thing.
I’ve spent a lot of time with clients debating the appropriateness of “in memoriam” weekends. Two weeks after Frey’s death, in a spirit of “flowers for the living,” I encouraged the same Greatest Hits client to run a “Living Legends Weekend.” Perhaps it seemed morbid in the same way, but I hope it came off as positive for the right reasons—a reminder to stay in touch with the people you care about.