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A Blast From the Past: WEAM's Brief Return

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 9, 2005; Page C02

With a typical hyper-cheerful jingle -- "Who's got the Beatles? We've got the Beatles!" -- wonderful WEAM, Washington's fast-talking powerhouse from the long-gone golden age of Top-40 radio, was back on the air yesterday.

Okay, so it was only for a few hours and it was only a simulation of Top-40, circa 1966, but you got the idea from the very first mention of "the WEAM Team." In the decidedly 21st-century studios of XM Satellite Radio in Northeast Washington, Terry "Motormouth" Young reached back into the stacks of wax to re-create the sound and feel of WEAM, AM 1390 on your radio dial, on his weekly tribute to 1960s radio on XM's Channel 6.

You didn't have to live in Washington in the 1960s to know what WEAM -- and its rivals WPGC and WINX -- were all about. Every city had a WEAM. It was to Washington what WMCA and WABC were to New York, what KFWB and KHJ were to Southern California, what WLS was to Chicago.

The stations played only a few popular hits (the playlists were often considerably tighter than 40 songs) and featured insanely energetic DJs whose voices were the height of radio artificiality (anyone can imitate a 1960s Top-40 jock: just talk really fast and pretend you're about to puke). Long before Walkmans and iPods, stations like WEAM rode to glory with the help of cheap and widely available portable transistor radios, which made it possible for the first time to listen almost anywhere.

Young, who is 52 and a lifelong professional DJ, recalls the era, and the station, fondly. "I remember coming up to Washington [from Richmond] with my dad in the sixth grade and hearing it for the first time. It was so exciting. I thought WEAM was on fire! The DJs, the energy. And the music was great. I wish I had taped them."

Instead, he pulled together vintage tapes of WEAM's DJs from collectors and station jingles from a company that archives them. He also did some research to find out what a Top-40 station in Washington (actually, WEAM was based in Arlington) would be talking about in the mid-1960s.

And so, for a few hours that won't be reaired or archived online, XM subscribers across the country heard the voice of DJ Russ Wheeler announcing that it was "61 WEAM degrees" outside. Young, in the guise of a WEAM DJ, talked up Milt Grant's upcoming dance-party TV show on Channel 5, plugged a sale at Woodies (Levi's for $4!) and mentioned that the latest hits were available at Waxie Maxie's and Swiller's Records. As for entertainment, he suggested young listeners check out "the submarine races at Rock Creek Park and the Tidal Basin."

"The jocks," observed Young, a bit sadly, "were cool in those days. They were allowed to have a personality. Nowadays, all [DJs] do is plug the station's contest and its morning show. Then they get a paycheck and go home."

Top 40 was, of course, about the music, too. Even though the playlists were extremely restrictive, they were in many ways more diverse than those of the average music station today. Unlike contemporary radio, there were no "niches" on Top-40. Over the course of an hour yesterday, Young played the Beatles, Aretha Franklin, the Troggs, the Swinging Medallions, the Monkees, and Martha and the Vandellas.

DJs got some latitude in choosing records -- again, heresy in an age when playlists are market-tested and computer-controlled. As if to illustrate the point, Young took a call from a listener ("Eric from Brunswick, Maryland") who requested Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction." Young politely thanked him, hung up, and snapped, "I hate that song!" And he didn't play it.

By the early 1970s, WEAM and its kind had fallen from the top rung of the ratings. Their major weakness was technological; the great Top-40 stations were on the AM band, which meant that they offered listeners all the sonic fidelity of a couple of soup cans on a string.

Certainly, Top-40's young audiences got older and tastes changed, but album-oriented music and FM radio ultimately killed the AM star.

The Federal Communications Commission's rule in the late 1960s that owners of AM and FM stations produce original programming on the FM side ended the common practice of AM-FM simulcasting. This spurred the development of FM radio as an original programming medium and as a music medium. By the early 1970s, auto manufacturers were including FM radios as standard equipment in cars. AM Top-40 didn't stand a chance.

Still, as Terry Young proved for a little while yesterday, it was fun, fun, fun while it lasted.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company