This series of posts covers my long, beloved history interacting with the medium of radio, including the music that flowed through the airwaves.
As I remember it, we were getting bored with the same old on-air giveaways somewhere around the spring of 1992. Like a lot of college radio stations, we at WWSP-90FM usually relied upon whatever stray duplicates of new music releases made their way to our mailbox for purposes of setting our array of prizes. Sometimes those extra copies were sent because we asked what could be spared to pass along to lucky-caller listeners and sometimes it seemed we were simply inadvertently serviced twice on the same album. All that was fine, and many of the listeners got some prime music to add to their collections, but we wanted a more robust, strategic approach to the contests we emanated on the airwaves. I guess we wanted to sound like a bigtime radio station.
The easiest and most obvious approach was to really press the labels and the servicing agencies to pass along more music for us to dangle before those tuning in. Whenever there was a new album we thought might stir some excitement with the listenership (and that was on one of the labels we had a better-than-average relationship with, such as Chrysalis or A&M), we took some time in the weekly check in calls with the record reps to make the case that we should get fifteen copies to pass along. We’d then build a whole week around those giveaways. Because each giveaway was accompanied by us playing a song from the album, and fifteen spins was usually enough to top our weekly chart, the record rep was assured a hash mark on their tally of #1s for the release they were pushing.
I also took advantage of my side job slinging popcorn, sweeping floors, and taping together 35mm prints at a local movie theater to further bolster the stock in the prizes cabinet. More specifically, I took advantage of a highly impressionable and eager-to-be-liked manager who could be talked into running side schemes that neither our corporate ownership nor the movie studios would approve. For a string of titles that played at our theater, I convinced him to let the radio station give away opening weekend movie tickets in exchange for the on-air promotion those giveaways naturally provided. We actually gave away physical tickets, but they were handmade in the radio station offices, and the box office workers at the theater (including your truly) knew to simply take that phony pass and wave them in. On air, we tried our best to stage those giveaways in slightly offbeat ways, such as stitching together a thirty-second montage of relevant snippets from a bunch of recent college radio semi-hits that included the word “money” prominently in conjunction with a contest built around the the dreadful Damon Wayans vehicle Mo’ Money. When people heard the montage, it was time to call in and win.
One set of prizes is the most memorable of the summer for me, as well as one of the promotional endeavors I remain most goofily proud of. The summer of 1992 brought the release of Batman Returns, director Tim Burton’s sequel to the 1989 smash that brought the caped crusader to the big screen. That played at the theater I worked at, so we did get some tickets for that (I think listeners were told to hit the phones when they heard Danny Elfman’s Batman theme), but I wanted to do more. In a manner than almost seems quaint in our modern age of nonstop synergy, the original Batman was somewhat notorious for the sheer amount of flimsy tie-in products that were licensed, and the follow-up basically tripled down on the eager selling out.
Somehow I secured a list of all of the licensed products associated with Batman Returns, and I spent a couple days going through every last entry and calling the company in question to request some freebies we could parcel out. (None of this was particularly easy in the days before the web that stretches worldwide made connecting with major businesses as easy as correctly formatting a tweet.) A surprising number of the companies agreed. We had a spot by the main studio where we put the records, CDs, and cassettes to be turned over to winners coming to claim their spoils. For a few weeks, that shelf was also loaded with Batman-themed toys, clothing, and food products. I’ll admit that I took a box of Batman Returns breakfast cereal for myself. It was pretty good.
I fully admit there was nothing dazzling or groundbreaking about our more expansive approach to what made for suitable on-air prizes. Even so, I see the little dash of added effort we brought to the familiar process of enticing continued listening with the promise of free stuff as emblematic of the freewheeling creativity that I cherished so deeply in my college radio days. We were delightfully dopey kids who were improbably given authority over a federally-licensed broadcast outlet. And if we could dream it up and do it, we could put it on the air. To this day, I am still in awe of that privilege, even when it manifested as giving a boxful of repurposed Chex squares and Batmobile marshmallows.
Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Radio Days” tag.