Phil Spector was looking for some male acts to pad out his all-female stable of talent when he heard the Righteous Brothers. Shortly thereafter they recorded a song that few people thought would be a hit.
Penny: So, how many people listen?
Wil Wheaton: Most people download it later, but usually a few thousand people listen live.
Penny: What? A few thousand people listen to you talk about nerd stuff?
Wil Wheaton: Again, right in the ears, straight to the feelings.
—The Big Bang Theory, “The Fortification Implementation” (4/9/15)
A few people have asked me about the what sort of stuff I go through when I put this podcast together, so I figured it would be fun(-ish) for me to take a closer look at the entire process and share it with you.
PART I—THE HISTORY
I’ve long had an interest in radio. When I was in college in the early 80s I spent inordinate amounts of time at WBAU, the radio station that was run by students at Adelphi University. (WBAU went dark in 1995, and that’s a whole other story). I thought I would go into broadcasting, but a few things, rather ridiculous ones in retrospect, got in the way and frankly I floundered for a few years. But I never lost the bug. And most people agree that you never do.
The other thing I’ve always been pretty good at is telling stories. I’m not prolific about it but I also have a personal blog called Baltimore Diary, where I occasionally bang out pretty much whatever is on my mind. The problem with a blog like that is that it doesn’t have a lot of focus, so the audience will always be small. Not that I’m writing for the popularity or the glory, but you like to think that someone other than your immediate circle of friends is paying attention. (I’m going to cross-post this over there, so if you click on the link you’ll just wind up reading this again unless you scroll down.)
So, finding a way of combining the two has been a little bit of a conundrum for me. I’ve been listening to podcasts for several years now. Marc Maron’s WTF was one of the first, and coincidentally I was one of his first listeners, because I started searching for my first podcasts to listen to only a few weeks after he started his podcast. (The Maron thing is a little bit of an aside and I’ll come back to it in a bit.) One of the other podcasts I adopted early on was Cerphe Colwell’s progressive show, which was a couple of hours of music that was pretty much in my wheelhouse. That show moved over to a different platform and I was still using an iPod, so unfortunately we had to break up. But Cerphe’s show was the first inkling I had that I could do a music program, and do it on my own terms. There was another one I listened to pretty much from the beginning, but it got kind of stale and, while it’s still running, that’s largely because it’s got a band of rabid fans that are, frankly, living in the past and haven’t figured out that the show has refused to evolve.
PART II—THE BEGINNING
Life got in the way for a couple of years, what with relatives getting sick and dying, so nearly everything went by the wayside. But a few months ago I started thinking about it again. And it was around this time that I started looking a little more closely at other podcasts to see what they were doing, and how they were doing it, and how they sounded, and a number of other things. I wanted to do something that had a specific focus (unlike the blog), and had a topic about which I could talk knowledgeably. I came up with a few ideas and crowd-sourced it a little bit, and the one that I liked best, AND had the advantage of not being like a lot of others, was this one.
I also crowd-sourced the title of the show, which I’d lifted from something I’d seen on Allan Sniffen’s website, and despite this, he was nice to me in my first couple of weeks. A few people came up with alternative names, but what they had was either already taken, or I couldn’t get the domain name. Plus it was growing on me day-by-day.
I also need to give a shout-out to my fellow WBAU alumnus Doug Miles, who DID make the cross over into professional broadcasting. He’s got the Book Talk podcast, and he covers the Orioles Spring Training season down in Sarasota, and he’s got a bunch of other stuff going on pretty much all the time. He took the time to give me a bunch of pointers on getting the thing up and running. Eternal thanks to him for his encouragement.
Some people have suggested that it’s a lot like Song Exploder, and in a way I agree in the sense that Hrishikesh Hirway also concentrates on a single track for each podcast, but he’s got a different format, and he sticks to more recent tracks, whereas I’m reaching back for the older stuff. So, we’ve each got our little corner of the genre staked out.
I did a LOT of planning ahead on this, including mapping out something like the first ten episodes, because if I couldn’t sustain that much, then what was the point? To be honest, I lost the list and had to re-do the advance planning, but being able to do it again, and with largely different stuff, meant that I was probably onto something with the longer-term prospects of the show. I got a format together, I figured out what I wanted it to sound like, and I started shopping for equipment.
PART III—THE NUTS AND BOLTS
The first couple of shows were recorded in my dining room, on summer days when Wife was out of the house and the dogs were outside. I’d have to stop recording every time the air conditioners came on, or shut them off and put up with the heat. I decided, however, that there was still too much ambient noise in the area because my house has a semi-open floorplan to it, and I still sounded kind of “live”. Plus, I had to assemble everything and then take it apart again after each recording session, and I could see where that would get a little taxing on my cables and such. So I moved the entire setup into my basement, where I could put it together and leave it there.
My first purchase was the Behringer Xenyx Q1202 12-channel mixer. It’s probably more than I need, input-wise, but I’ve also got the flexibility I’ll need to implement some ideas I have for future shows. And at about a hundred bucks, it wasn’t breaking the bank. I’d also purchased a couple of Behringer Ultravoice XM1800S microphones, but in the end I didn’t like the way they sounded. (They’re going to come in handy for a future project or two.) Until now I’ve been working with Wee One’s Shure SM-7 microphone. I DO like the way it sounds, but after all it’s not my mic. So this week I ordered one of my own, and I decided to take a step up. Come next week, How Good It Is will be recorded using an Electrovoice RE-20 microphone, which is my favorite of all time. I also purchased a shock mount to go with it, because I’m not going to be in a basement forever, Mom.
I have two other elements that I use. One is to help improve the sound and the other is to keep the production going smoothly.
The first is acoustic foam panels. Wee One got me a bunch of them as a Christmas present, which I mounted to doubled corrugated cardboard, and I purchased a second set and mounted those as well. So I record, surrounded by these two-foot-by-six-foot cardboard panels with acoustic foam on them, to help cut down the ambient noises.
And the other is a pair of laptops. One contains all of my sound elements: the theme music and the audio clips that I use during the show, and that’s jacked into my mixer. The other one does the actual recording, and is connected to the mixer’s output through a USB port. Software-wise, I use a program called Soundboard to store the audio clips so I can fire them at will. The only drawback to the version of Soundboard I’m using is that the clips have to be in WAV format, so I wind up converting some files before I can use them. I use Audacity to record end edit the show. I’ve learned the hard way that you shouldn’t have other stuff running while you’re recording with Audacity because it can interfere with the recording buffer, creating a “skip” in the final playback product. (My professional tip for you today.)
I’d take a picture of the entire setup, but one of the laptops isn’t attached to the studio permanently; in fact it’s the one I’m typing on now (back in the dining room, am I). So next week I’ll take a photo and post it for the curious.
The show is very produced compared to other podcasts; I like to have some kind of stuff going on most of the time, which is a holdover from my radio style. That also means that the show is rather heavily scripted, because in many cases I’m timing things tightly. So editing the show usually takes a little while, but Soundboard has cut down on that and lately I’m just stitching together my beginning, middle and end. Once in awhile I’ll screw up and either re-do the entire segment I’m recording or, if I can find a decent point to edit, I’ll go back to that point and start over. I’m kind of proud of the fact that most of my edits are pretty invisible. I was good with physically cutting tape back in the day, and I’ve got a good ear for doing it digitally as well.
Once the show is edited, I upload it to a website called Auphonic for audio. Because the show is short, I can do all of my processing for free. But if it were longer, I’d pay for it because it’s made a huge difference in the show’s sound.
From there, I upload it to this site, and to Podomatic, where the show is hosted, and it’s from there that your podcatcher gets it. I write up the post for this site and publish it, and after waiting a little while I publicize it on Facebook. The reason for the delay is that I’ve discovered, if I try to post on FB right away, Facebook can’t find the images. And sometimes it can’t even find the post! So I give everyone a little time to figure it out.
And now we get to the part where you come in!
PART V—WHERE YOU COME IN
You, my faithful listener/reader (and you’ve GOTTA be pretty faithful if you’ve gotten through nearly 2000 words and you’re still with me), will either read my Facebook post and come here directly, or you have iTunes or Spotify or some other pod organizing software, and it gets (usually) automatically downloaded to your device.
At this point I still don’t have a huge number of listeners, but that’s OK because the feedback I’ve gotten has been almost overwhelmingly positive. My strongest critic is my brother, who listens to a few at a time and then calls me to tell me what sounds crappy, and more often than not I agree with his assessments and have made adjustments.
So how do I decide what songs to cover?
There are a few songs where I know there’s an interesting backstory, and those come pretty easily. Other times, I’ll hear a song and just wonder if they have a story to them, and then the research begins. Occasionally I’ll hit a dead end (that is, there isn’t really much to tell), but that leads me into another story. Once in awhile I hear a bit of trivia on a radio show and that encourages me to dig a little deeper. (“Get Together“, Episode 4, is a good example of this.) And every now and again I look at what I’ve covered and see if I need to go in a different direction for awhile, e.g. have I done too many songs from the 60s and ignored the 50s? Have I concentrated on male artists too much? Rock vs. ballads vs. doo-wop vs. some other genre?
A couple of people have made suggestions, and one of them has already been turned into a show (H/T to Kevin), and another has given me an idea for something I want to do later, in the springtime (another H/T to Jerry). For what it’s worth, I’m always open to new ideas, whether it’s about the sound, the content or some other detail (should I do more trivia questions?). I’m always happy to see comments and suggestions, whether it’s here or on the Facebook page.
Finally: a couple of people have asked me about monetizing the podcast somehow. That’s not my immediate plan; unless the show grows immensely in popularity, it’ll be a relatively inexpensive hobby for me. If I have to start paying for additional bandwidth and such because there are so many downloads, then I will have to think about doing something like that, but I’ll try to do it as unobtrusively as possible. The aim would be sustaining rather than profit.
One of the big takeaways I’ve gotten from this whole project is that it’s good to have something else to look forward to, that’s vastly different from everything else you do. And the other thing is something I’ve learned from several years of listening to Marc Maron (see, I told you I’d come back to him). His show was born out of the ashes of his previous job. At that point he was a mid-level standup comic and radio host, who lost the radio gig when his entire network, Air America, took a huge financial crash and went belly-up. But from those pieces he managed to rebuild—indeed, vastly improve—his career and, it seems, repair his personal life right in front of his audience. I’m not in that level of dire straits, thanks, but it taught me that there are always second acts, that there’s always redemption and a positive future, if you make the reach for it.
This post has been an incredible exercise in procrastination (hey, it was either this, or I start writing next week’s show), but it was also kind of fun for me to put together. Thanks again for all your amazing support, and for letting me into your head every week.
Kim Carnes started writing songs at the age of four, and was a member of the New Christy Minstrels for a little while, before she got a publishing deal with Jimmy Bowen in 1969. A couple of years after that she released her first solo album, but it wasn’t until 1980, when she re-connected with another former New Christy Minstrel, Kenny Rogers, to sing “Don’t Fall In Love With A Dreamer”. Later that year she covered Smokey Robinson’s “More Love” and between those two tracks, Kim Carnes was “suddenly” a famous musician.
The following year, Carnes’ album Mistaken Identity was released, and the leadoff single, “Bette Davis Eyes” took over the first half of the Summer of 1981, after which Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” picked up and finished off the next ten weeks. Even Bette Davis herself was happy enough with the song that she wrote letters to Kim Carnes and songwriters Jackie DeShannon and Donna Weiss, thanking them for making her a “part of modern times. ” And when the song won two Grammy awards, Davis sent them all flowers to celebrate.
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In 1970, Led Zeppelin band members Robert Plant and Jimmy Page wanted a new song to use as the centerpiece of their concerts. so they retreated to a cottage in Wales, as you do in these situations. And when they emerged, they had the genesis of the song that’s made so many “Best of…” lists, it’s actually created some backlash over the years, including from Robert Plant himself.
The song proved so popular when the Album-Oriented Rock stations played it that people immediately asked, “Where can I buy this single?” And the answer was, You can’t. Go buy the album.
The album was Led Zeppelin IV (or, just “the fourth album”, or Zoso if you like reading too deeply into things), and the song was “Stairway to Heaven” (because, duh). And while “Stairway” was never released to the public as a 45 single, the album sold like hotcakes, becoming one of the top ten selling albums of all time.
That’s not to say that there wasn’t a 45RPM record, however: a promotional copy was sent to radio stations (see below–note the small spindle hole), and a jukebox copy was created for play in those machines.
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Back in the 1950s, cover songs weren’t a big deal at all, especially if you were in a doo-wop group. Most of those groups started out in churches and in schools, and performed on street corners or Amateur Hour shows, and they weren’t writing their own material so much as they were adapting the songs that they’d heard and already knew. So it was with The Flamingos and their biggest hit, “I Only Have Eyes For You,” which dates back to the 1934 film Dames, featuring Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. Check out this mostly-instrumental “dance” number!
For a song that’s so well-known among Oldies fans, it didn’t do that well on the charts in 1959, peaking at #11 on the pop chart and #3 on the R&B chart. And I have a theory about that, but you’ll have to listen in.
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So for those of you who listen via iTunes, or some other podcatcher: I owe you a huge apology.
I’d uploaded this week’s episode into Podomatic, which hosts my RSS feed, but somehow I managed to miss hitting the “Publish” button. It’s a mistake I didn’t catch until today. At any rate, the problem has been rectified, and I’m a dope.
Also, I had one thing in mind for this week’s show, but I’m going to do another thing instead, because the first idea gave me writer’s block.
Let’s meet here again on Saturday, shall we?
Everybody Say Yeah!
I love a good call-and-response.
Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips Part 2” was only the second Number One hit for Motown Records. The first was 1962’s “Please Mister Postman” by the Marvelettes. (Fun Fact: the drummer on both these songs was Marvin Gaye! He was still an up-and-coming artist, so he played as a session musician on a lot of the early tracks for the label.)
But Motown had a bit of a tough time getting audiences to appreciate The 12-Year-Old Genius, and even this song wasn’t the catalyst for his career. It took a little perseverance and the onset of puberty to turn him into one of Motown’s biggest performers, with a career that’s still going strong fifty-five years later, and counting.
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In the 1960s there was a doo-wop girl group called the Blue Belles (sometimes known as The Bluebelles, or Patti and the Bluebelles). After Cindy Birdsong left the group in 1967 to become a Supreme, the group reinvented themselves and became Labelle. In the early 1970s they were a funk-rock group, recording covers of The Rolling Stones, Carole King and all kinds of other stuff that no other similarly-composed group would even consider. But another couple of years went by and they reinvented themselves again, embracing the the Glam Rock look and sound, and it was during that era that they scored their biggest hit, a proto-disco-funk track called “Lady Marmalade”, which went to Number One on the Billboard Chart in March of 1975.
Over the years since then, Labelle’s influence can still be heard in the sounds of groups like En Vogue, the Pussycat Dolls, and Destiny’s Child. Their fearlessness has inspired at least a couple of generations of pop musicians, and even their non-hit tracks are regularly covered. “Lady Marmalade” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2003, and I’ll bet you didn’t even know that “Grammy Hall of Fame” was even a thing.
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Did you ever decide that you were in the market for something, let’s say you need a car, and all of a sudden you see advertisements for cars all over the place? Or, you learn a new word and suddenly you see it being used everywhere?
This is called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, and it’s a weird little trick our brains play on us. And recently, I was pranked by my brain in this manner.
Episode 9 was devoted to songs that you may not have known were covers of other artists, and I thought at that time that it was kind of a fun idea, and I’d like to come back to it once in awhile. Now, I was thinking maybe another 20 or 30 episodes down the road, but then Baader-Meinhof got in the way and I started really noticing it when it was pointed out that a song I was listening to was a cover of another recording. So, because I have a tendency to write stuff down and then immediately lose the notes, I decided to return to the concept a little more quickly than I usually do. And the fun thing is, I’m saving the one that came as the biggest surprise to me for another show.
So this time around we’re going to hear from musicians as diverse as Salt ‘n’ Pepa, Led Zeppelin and Linda Lyndell. Who? Just go listen, you’ll be fine, I promise. In fact, you’re going to be sad that you don’t know who Linda Lyndell is, especially when you find out WHY you don’t know who she is.
I noted this briefly at the end of the show, but something I noticed only while I was recording was that all of the songs enjoyed only modest success until the cover came out. But the other common thread is that the more successful artist made some sort of change to the song, almost as if that made the difference between whether or not the song was a hit.
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Also, my apologies for the late delivery of this episode; I had a technical issue that was frankly kind of scary, and had me wondering whether I’d be forced to A) re-record the episode after B) buying a new computer, but fortunately I managed to fix what was wrong and we’re only a few hours late.
Sad news from the world of music this week as we learn that Edwin Hawkins has died at the age of 74. I have to confess that this came as a surprise because I started doing the math and realized that Hawkins was in his mid-20s when “Oh Happy Day” became a hit. For whatever reason I thought he was at least twenty years older THEN.
Hawkins was the founder of the Northern California State Youth Choir, and the choir recorded some songs to make a fundraiser album, which unfortunately didn’t get pressed until after the event for which they needed the money. That event was a choral competition, and the NCSYC came in second, perhaps because “Oh Happy Day” wasn’t one of the songs they sang. As it turns out, that wasn’t one of their favorite songs!
The unexpected success of “Oh Happy Day” led to the group being asked to provide the backup singing for Melanie’s tribute to her experience at Woodstock, “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)”.
The Edwin Hawkins Singers experienced some more success on the Gospel charts over the years, and lead singer Dorothy Morrison gained acclaim as a backup singer for several rock artists.
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