College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1989, An Introduction

In the summer of 1989, I had a goofy idea. It was the end of June, half the year gone. I was in my office at the campus radio station, having just called CMJ to report our weekly Top 35 list of albums receiving the most airplay. I retrieved the file folder that had all the charts from previous weeks and prepared to add this latest sheet to its contents. Instead, I emptied the folder onto my desk and started playing around. When I was a kid, I loved countdown shows, whether on the radio or on television, and I was especially fond of the editions that arrived at the end of December which purported to provide a summation of the most popular music of the entire year. As someone who’s struggled with my own lifelong list addiction, I wondered if these charts compiled from the music played on our humble outpost on the left end of the dial could be pulled together in an interesting way.

I spent the afternoon tallying up a chart of the top albums on 90FM for the first half of the year. That night I went on the air for my regular shift and built my playlist from that chart, doing a unnamed countdown show without announcing to the listeners that there was anything special about the selection of songs. The station manager excitedly told our faculty advisor that it was the best radio show he’d ever heard on the station. The faculty advisor was largely unmoved by this pronouncement, immediately switching to a conversation about the new material he’d recently added to the public file, but it was pretty well decided that we’d need to revisit this programming idea in a more official capacity at the end of the year.

So I keep fitting each new chart into the simple matrix I put together, and on December 31st we devoted the entire day of 90FM programming to counting down our Top 90 albums over the year. As I detailed in a recent One for Friday post, this involved me writing furiously in the office to provide scripts for the DJs as they tracked from number ninety all the way to number one, two songs at a time. It was a fun, crazy, exhausting day. And I recently unearthed some evidence of it.

Buried within a box, nestled lovingly inside a folder promoting the Pogues album Peace & Love, I found copies of the old scripts. Most of them are on paper that had been fed through a dot matrix printed, some are hand-written on the back of sheets torn from a appointments pad. It’s a haphazard mess, but a little archeological ingenuity is the only thing required to rebuild the chart that was counted down that wintry Wisconsin day.

So starting tomorrow, I’ll recreate that countdown. Every Sunday until the project is complete, I’ll write about two albums from the list, moving our way up the chart just as we did on the air over twenty years ago.

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