Lights out at 10 p.m. It was mandatory at the military prep boarding school where I was learning that mandatory was a relative term.
At exactly the same time, the forbidden radio secreted in my dorm room was switched on, tuned to 890 kHz on the AM dial (Who, in 1964, knew a thing about FM?).
The volume was kept low, soft enough to hear footfalls of our adult minders climbing the wooden steps, making their rounds like prison guards.
It was risky listening. After-hours radio was the kind of miscreant activity that could bring terrible retribution from the round-faced dean we knew as Old Tomato Head. But it was a cultural necessity among adolescents throughout the Midwest and South, listening to the nightly countdown on WLS, the 50,000-watt station out of Chicago that, once the sun went down, reached out a thousand miles in all directions.
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Each evening at 10, famed WLS disc jockey Art Roberts played the third, second and finally the evening's first most requested song. In a Tennessee town 450 miles from Chicago, my roommates and I huddled around the radio in a nightly ritual that connected us to other kids across the South and the Midwest, as the suspense built toward No. 1 (Me and my roomies added even more suspense by betting on the outcome.). America's youth, for those next 15 minutes, were as one.
A few years later, Casey Kasem expanded the concept into his weekly Top 40 countdown, a nationally syndicated four-hour show that in the 1970s and 1980s became a similarly communal experience. Kasem, who died Sunday, could hardly be avoided in those days of limited rock radio choices. Outside of cities large enough to support “progressive” FM concepts, you were pretty much stuck with what few stations your car radio could retrieve.
Didn't really matter whether you loathed most of the songs on Kasem’s ubiquitous countdown. Too bubblegum. Too pop. Too disco. Too girlie. You listened until his democratic concept finally got around your own favorite genre, even if it never quite made it to No. 1.
Listening to the countdown was another universal ritual obliterated by the digital age. Lately, I’ve got 1,200 songs on my iPhone and seven “favorite” stations on satellite radio, and like everyone else in America, I can escape into my genres and sub-genres without a clue as to what’s moving the rest of America.
Not that I’m anxious to suffer Iggy Azalea or Jason Derulo, but I wonder if society hasn’t lost something, as we all retreat into our personal playlists.
There was a time, living in a small Mississippi town, when all of us tuned into that same rock station out of Memphis. You could pull up next to a car full of girls waiting at the red light and they’d be singing along with the same recording blaring from your own car radio. All of us sharing that communal moment, and wondering which song, that night, would be No. 1.