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The Not-So-Distant History Of Radio Jingles

WABC's Dan Ingram in 1981. (Courtesy of Allan Sniffen)

Many people of a certain generation might remember a jingle or two from one of their hometown radio stations.

"It was, to use the current terminology, the branding or the imaging of the radio station," jingle producer Jonathan Wolfert says.

Jingles helped to create a station's personality. Throughout the 1960s and '70s, New York's WABC, a 50,000-watt powerhouse heard up and down the East Coast, was the Top 40 gold standard.

"The jingles were the exclamation marks between records," says Dan Ingram, host of Afternoon Drive on WABC throughout the 1960s and '70s. "'The greatest station in the world, WABC!' — you know, whatever."

Ingram says his show would have sounded dull without the jingles.

"It was a tool," he says. "I could play with it in one way or another in between some of the other banality that was on — including me. I'd either sing along with it, or comment on it, or use it to make a comment. Whatever the jingle was, it had a purpose."

During their heyday, jingles were often as familiar as the Top 40 tunes themselves. Ken Deutsch is a former jingle producer, collector and self-described "jingle freak."

"When I'm in my car, like this morning on the way over here, I was listening to a CD of jingles," Deutsch says.

He's even written a two-volume history of radio jingles. Deutsch says that between 1960 and 1975 or so, a Top 40 station without jingles would have been unthinkable.

"When AM was very popular, usually in each market you had two Top 40 stations battling it out," he says. "Name any market and you can find the two stations. And they both, you know, played the same music. And they both had the same commercials. And they both had screaming Top 40 disc jockeys. And what separated them was the jingles."

You might think that jingles were produced in New York or Los Angeles. Some were. But the hub of the jingle industry was Dallas, thanks to two musicians in the 1950s.

"Tom Merriman and Bill Meeks," Deutsch says, "were staff musicians at radio stations at a time when radio stations had staff musicians. Tom Merriman was a great singer in his day — great baritone voice. Bill Meeks played saxophone very badly."

We don't know who was first, but they each — separately — came up with the idea of mass-producing jingles.

Vocalists would sometimes sing the call letters of their radio stations with their studio bands while announcers were changing shifts. Meeks and Merriman started pre-recording these types of jingles for stations around the world. Out-of-work composers, musicians and singers got wind that there was work in Dallas, and an industry took off.

Jingles in various forms remained important to almost all radio stations for decades. But by the 1990s, they started to sound old-fashioned. Wolfert still produces jingles at his company, JAM Creative Productions, but he says the business has changed.

"Going from a Beatles song to, you know, a Rolling Stones song with this big-band thing in the middle — that was okay then," Wolfert says. "But now it would be, kind of, 'What?' You know, it would be kind of strange, especially if you were putting it between a Beyonce song and a Taylor Swift song."

Although some stations still use the classic singing jingles, you're more likely to hear a kind of scaled-down jingle — without the singing — on today's radio. It's called a "sweeper."

Hip and smart as sweepers may be, those old jingles were just more fun.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Now a bit of radio history. We remember a quirky musical art form: the radio jingle. No, we're not talking about the kind of jingle that advertises about toothpaste - you'll wonder where the yellow went - or coffee. These jingles were about the radio stations themselves. Jingles were a staple of radio, especially the Top-40 radio for decades. Fred Wasser tells us about these little songs between the songs.

FRED WASSER, BYLINE: You might remember a jingle or two from one of your hometown stations.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing) WCHL Memory.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: KINY, Juneau.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: Music Radio WLS, Chicago.

WASSER: Jonathan Wolfert has been producing jingles for more than 40 years.

JONATHAN WOLFERT: It was - to use the current terminology - the branding or the imaging of the radio station.

WASSER: Jingles helped to create a station's personality. Throughout the 1960s and '70s, New York's WABC, a 50,000-watt powerhouse heard up and down the East Coast, was the Top 40 gold standard.

(SOUNDBITE OF WABC JINGLE)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Dave Ingram.

DAVE INGRAM: The jingles were the exclamation marks between records. The greatest station in the world, WABC, you know, whatever.

WASSER: Dan Ingram hosted Afternoon Drive on WABC throughout the 1960s and '70s. He says his show would have sounded dull without the jingles.

INGRAM: It was a tool. I could play with it in one way or another in between some of the other banality that was on, including me. I'd either sing along with it, or comment on it, or use it to make a comment. So whatever the jingle was, it had a purpose.

(SOUNDBITE OF JINGLE)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #4: (Singing) It's now number one on 77 WAZZ.

INGRAM: (Unintelligible) number one, the Four Seasons made it to the top in just one week with "Rag Doll," here at your Dan Ingram Show.

WASSER: During their heyday, jingles were often as familiar as the Top 40 tunes themselves. Ken Deutsch is a former jingle producer, collector and self-described jingle freak.

KEN DEUTSCH: When I'm in my car, like this morning on the way over here, I was listening to a CD of jingles.

WASSER: He's even written a two-volume history of radio jingles. Deutsch says that between 1960 and 1975 or so, a Top 40 station without jingles would have been unthinkable.

DEUTSCH: When AM was very popular, usually in each market, you know, name any market, you had two Top 40 stations battling it out. You know, they both played the same music. And they both had the same commercials. And they both had screaming Top 40 disc jockeys. And what separated them was the jingles.

WASSER: You might think that jingles were produced in New York or Los Angeles. Some were. But the epicenter of the jingle industry was Dallas, Texas, launched by two musicians in the 1950s.

DEUTSCH: Tom Merriman and Bill Meeks. And these guys were staff musicians at radio stations at a time when radio stations had staff musicians. Tom Merriman was a great singer in his day, great baritone voice. Bill Meeks played saxophone very badly.

WASSER: We don't know who was first, but they each, separately, came up with the idea of mass-producing jingles. The vocalists with their studio bands would sometimes sing the call letters of their radio stations while announcers were changing shifts. Meeks and Merriman started pre-recording these types of jingles for stations around the world. Out-of-work composers, musicians and singers got wind that there was work in Dallas, and an industry took off.

Since many of the musicians came from big bands, it's not surprising that jingles from this era had a jazzy feel.

(SOUNDBITE OF JINGLE)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #5: (Singing) KSWB Channel 98. Every time.

WASSER: Jingles in various forms remained important to almost all radio stations for decades. But by the 1990s, they started to sound old-fashioned. Jonathan Wolfert still produces jingles at his company, JAM Creative Productions, although the business has changed.

WOLFERT: Going from a Beatles song to a Rolling Stones song with this big-band thing in the middle, that was OK then. But now it would be, kind of, what? You know, especially if you were putting it between a Beyonce song and a Taylor Swift song.

WASSER: So today, though some stations still use the classic singing jingles, up and down the radio dial or on the Internet, you're more likely to hear a kind of scaled-down jingle, without the singing. It's called a sweeper.

(SOUNDBITE OF JINGLE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Nine, eight, seven.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: 98. 7 Simon. We play everything.

WASSER: Sure, it's hip and it's smart, but those old jingles were more fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF JINGLE)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #6: (Singing) Wow. What a weekend with 77 WABC. Wow, wow, wow.

WASSER: For NPR News, I'm Fred Wasser. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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