The Rules of the Game

Algorithm Radio

Before the Goliath of Algorithms conquered all that stood before him, including the air waves of radio and Pandora and YOUTUBE, there was a courageous “little engine that could” type underdog, WCAS-AM. The letters stood for Cambridge-Arlington-Somerville. This was long before Somerville became the replacement Cambridge and Arlington was just a suburb way out there.
So it was really about Cambridge. The Cambridge of Tom and Ray at the Good News Garage, which of course was invariably tuned to CAS, as we called it.
It was also the Cambridge of the Joy of Movement Center and the Orson Welles Cinema. The 1970s and 80s with a demographic primed to embrace a truly independent radio station.
A daytime only station that left a tragic void every single day when it went off air, especially acute during the early sundown of fall and winter. A low power radio station without the hyperbole of “50,000 watts of power broadcasting across all New England!”
Instead, it boasted real live On Air hosts with distinct personalities making existential and idiosyncratic decisions choosing artists, selections, and play order.
The question, which is still relevant is: How did they “know” that if you liked Van Morrison, you would also like Jackson Browne and Paul Simon and Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and later Bob Marley? They did this without metrics and analytics and bots of every kind.
The answer of course is Intuition and Love. Love of the music and Intuition about their audience.
There is at least one strong counter argument from my personal experience that I have against anti-techno ideology known as “neo-Luddite”.
My counter argument is subjective and personal, embodying my love of specific music and of radio- my favorite medium.
It was circa 1976-77, I was twenty-six living in Los Angeles for a brief period. Specifically in Hollywood, not The Hollywood; we called it East Hollywood near the junction of Vermont Avenue and Sunset Boulevard. Close enough to Echo Park to know about it without venturing there. (Spoiler Alert: Echo Park is a place mentioned later in this piece.)
It was the most ethnically diverse neighborhood I’ve ever encountered in the past forty-six years. For example, one block from where we lived was a Filipino-Ukrainian bakery. A Filipino family had replaced the Ukrainians but retained the customers by keeping the name and Ukrainian products
We lived in a run-down double decker with a back yard and sufficient windows. We felt safe, largely because of our friendship with Mike, the brilliant and outrageous East Coast Jewish guy, who later became a lawyer. He lived on the second floor and was always home.
We also hosted a range of three or four of us on the first floor. As usual I had a cat and she gave birth to about a dozen or more kittens on our bed. First and last time for me because now all cats are spayed (but how do new ones keep coming?)
There was a baseball field behind a school a few blocks away and at least one time I played baseball, and it was walking the few blocks back to our house that “the event” occurred.
A radio was playing, maybe a portable radio I was carrying. A song came on that I’d never heard before and didn’t hear again for about thirty-five years.
When I did hear it again it was a transcendent moment of joy. A rush of distant memory washed over me and answered a question I didn’t even know I had. The song was uniquely visual and dramatic and the only words I could clearly recall were “Mohammed’s radio”. If the On Air host had announced the name of the artist, his genre, connections to other musicians, such as Jackson Browne, whom I already loved from WCAS, I did not hear it.
Thus, the value of algorithms and bots that can identify a song and artist without human assistance. I would have probably accidentally discovered The Warren Zevon, lifelong friend of Jackson Browne, and a musical hero of David Letterman, appearing sixteen times on his Late Night program. A singer-songwriter at the peak of his talent, who died in 2003, a genius lyricist whose stories remind us of the Impressionists, Expressionists, Abstract Expressionists, and Surrealists from the world of art These story-songs defy explanation which is unnecessary because the whole point is what the listener brings to them.
Who is this Mohammed and where and why is everyone listening to his radio? Is Mohammed in the foreground or simply a background figure whose name is meant to invoke an actual setting of time and place?
Some lyrics are a dead giveaway that refer to the post-Arab Oil Embargo, post-Yom Kippur War, with runaway inflation and frustrating never-ending lines at gas stations of restricted availability, which invariably produced more than just hints of potential violence. Unemployment was rampant.
Thus, Mohammed’s Radio released in 1976, at the height of the 70s chaos and precisely “my time” in Los Angeles.
“Everybody’s desperate/ trying to make ends meet/work all day/ still can’t pay/ the price of gasoline and meat/ alas their lives are incomplete.”
If Warren Zevon were alive today, amidst the rancor of Apocalypse at megawatts of power, I’m certain he would outshine and parody them with passionate outrage and dark humor.
(The Spoiler Alert reference to Echo Park is from his classic brooding and dark but not abstract expressionist-like song, Carmelita.)
The first verse:
“And I’m there with her/ in Ensenada
And I’m here/ in Echo Park”)

©Copyright 2023, Jonathan Goldin

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