The roots of today’s modern radio broadcasting can be traced to the spring of 1920 (I detail some the history of Canada’s crucial role here). Since then, hundreds if not thousands of songs have been written about radio, listening to the radio, music on the radio, and the people on the radio. Here are 10 songs written about real-life stations, DJs, and personalities.
1. Rush, The Spirit of Radio
In January 1980, I brought my friends over to listen to Permanent Waves, the new album from Rush. As it played, I read through the liner notes of the song that appeared on side one, track one. At the bottom was a note: inspired by The Spirit of Radio in Toronto, alive and well (so far). “My favourite band wrote a song about a radio station?” I thought. “Cool!” At that point in my high school years, I’d already been thinking about radio as a career. Never did I imagine that I’d end up working at that same station: CFNY-FM, now 102.1 the Edge.
At the time, CFNY was running out of a little yellow house in Brampton, using a woefully underpowered transmitter. Yet the station had achieved a cult following because of its eclectic playlist and its slogan, “The Spirit of Radio.” Rush took note, asked permission to use that slogan as a song title, and the rest is history. The full story will be told later this month in the new box set reissue of Permanent Waves.
2. The Guess Who, Clap for the Wolfman
Growing up outside of Winnipeg in the 1970s, the Guess Who were inescapable. With three AM top 40 stations — CKY, CKRC, and CFRW — chances were good that every time you turned on the radio, one of them was playing something from the band. In 1974, the group released a single with an odd guest vocal from some gravelly voiced dude. The whole song was an homage to Wolfman Jack, the infamous DJ who used to blast his rock’n’roll show across the U.S. from insanely powerful transmitters in Mexico just over the U.S. border through the 1960s.
These “border blaster” stations — running at up to 500,000 watts, 10 times more powerful than the maximum allowable in Canada and the U.S. — could be heard over thousands and thousands of square miles. Wolfman Jack and his weird act became extremely influential when it came to breaking new singles. If he rated your record high, chances were you were going to have a hit.
The Wolfman later moved to television and movies. He also had his own recording career, releasing songs like Boogie with the Wolfman in 1965. After appearing as himself in American Graffiti in 1973, the TV and movie offers started flooding in. He died of a heart attack on July 1, 1995, at the age of 57.
3. Todd Rundgren, Wolfman Jack
But the Guess Who weren’t the first band to pen a tribute to the Wolfman. In 1972, Todd Rundgren’s double album, Something/Anything?, featured a song entitled Wolfman Jack on side one, part of the collection’s so-called “Bouquet of Ear-Catching Melodies.”
4. ZZ Top, Heard It on the X
All radio stations in Mexico have call letters beginning with the letter X. Growing up in Texas, ZZ Top was very well aware of the border blaster stations coming in from Mexico. This track from 1977’s Fandango album speaks of listening to XERF, a station in Via Acuna, across the river from Del Rio, Texas. And given its power, they probably picked up XERB in Rosarito Beach near Tijuana. Both stations featured Wolfman Jack. (See also The Blasters’ Border Radio and Mexican Radio by Wall of Voodoo.)
5. Bob Seger, Rosalie
Through the ’60s and early ’70s, one of the most important radio stations in the world was CKLW in Windsor, otherwise known as The Big 8. With a 50,000-watt signal blasting from the centre of the continent, the station could be heard across several provinces and dozens of states. Not only was it the number one, Top 40 station in Windsor, but also in Detroit and even in Toldeo and Cleveland. With that kind of reach, getting a record added to The Big 8’s playlist could set you on the way to stardom.
A Detroit singer named Bob Seger knew this, but try as he might, he couldn’t get the station to add any of his records. Desperate for attention, he tried the direct approach. Side one of his 1973 album called Back in ’72 featured a song entitled Rosalie, which was an appeal to CKLW’s music director, Rosalie Trembley. Thin Lizzy recorded a cover in 1975 and included it on their Live and Dangerous album in 1978. That version became a hit single in the U.K.
Did Seger’s flattery work? Nope. It would be several more years before one of his singles made it on The Big 8.
6. The Clash, Capital Radio One (and Two)
There was no such thing as commercial radio in the U.K. until the pirate stations of the 1960s forced the government to end the BBC’s monopoly on broadcasting in 1973. The first non-BBC station on the air was Capital Radio out of London, which was somewhat less stodgy and dogmatic when it came to its musical selections. When punk came along, the great hope was that Capital Radio would support the new music.
Not a chance. Punk was too harsh, too subversive, too rude. The station did not want to risk alienating its listeners and advertisers.
This infuriated The Clash. They retaliated by writing a song called Capital Radio, which called out the station’s head of music, Aiden Day, and mocked the outlet’s slogan “Capital Radio: In tune with London.” The jingle at the end? A parody of one of the station’s own.
Capital Radio was released on April 9, 1977, and was available to readers of The NME who sent in a coupon. When supplies ran out and the song became a punk collectible, The Clash re-recorded it as Capital Radio Two, which appeared on The Cost of Living EP in 1979.
7. The Velvet Underground, Rock & Roll
As Lou Reed’s time with the Velvet Underground was running down, he wrote a song for the Loaded album about how the music he heard on New York radio stations opened his mind as he was growing up on Long Island. Although no stations are mentioned by name in the lyrics, it’s safe to safe that Lou was thinking of two NYC Top 40 powerhouses. The first was WABC, which played their number one song every 60 minutes and sought to monopolize ownership of The Beatles during the British invasion. The second would have been WMCA and their stable of DJs known as The Good Guys. They fought with WABC as both stations sought to out-Beatle the other.
Rock & Roll was the B-side to the Sweet Jane 7-inch when it was released in the summer of 1973.
8. The Smiths, Panic
On April 26, 1986, the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Power Plant melted down, resulting in the worst nuclear accident in history. According to lore, Morrissey and Marr heard BBC afternoon DJ Steven Wright — someone Morrissey already disliked — break the news, after which he played I’m Your Man by Wham, which struck Morrissey as insensitive, stupid, and completely incongruent with the seriousness of the situation. Mozzer went home and committed these lines to paper: “Hang the DJ” and “burn down the disco.” By July 21, it was in the stores.
9. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Last DJ
Petty was coy as to if the DJ in question was a real person. Sometimes he’d refer to the song as a metaphor for Amerian losing her moral compass. But Petty also said it was about a DJ in Jacksonville, Fla., who became so frustrated with tight, dictated playlists, that he moved to a Mexican station that offered him more creative freedom. Others have suggested it was about Jim Ladd, an L.A. FM DJ who refused to work at stations that demanded he follow a playlist.
10. The Tragically Hip, My Music at Work
This number two hit in Canada took its name from Toronto station EZ 97/Easy 97/EZ Rock (CJEZ-FM) whose advertising slogan for a time was “Toronto’s music @ work.” Gord Downie saw the station’s billboards and co-opted the notion of at-work listening for the song.
- Steve Earle, Satellite Radio from 2007’s Washington Square Serenade album
- Donald Fagen, The Nightfly album, which references a fictional station called WJAZ. A station with those calls did exist in Chicago in the ’20s and ’30s but it never did play jazz.
- The Beach Boys, That’s Why God Made the Radio, inspired by the unnamed California radio stations Brian Wilson used to listen to in his ’64 Plymouth Valiant.
- K-os, C.L.A, a reference to KCLA/Los Angeles, one of his favourites.
- Roseanne Cash, 50,000 Watts, is all about WDIA in Memphis, which featured Black radio personalities after it signed on in 1947.
- Black Sabbath, Fluff. It was written for DJ Alan Freeman, who once used a Black Sabbath instrumental as the intro to his radio show. Fluff was Freeman’s nickname when he worked at Radio Luxembourg and then BBC Radio 1.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.