Twenty (Or So) (Mostly) Great Songs That Were a Hit on One Station
A few nights ago, “Bania U Cygana” by Zero came up in my workout playlist. “Bania U Cygana” was a Polish-language dance record that became a signature record for WKIE (Energy 92.7) Chicago during its brief tenure as a dance station in the early ‘00s. It never spread to crosstown WBBM-FM (B96), whose version of Rhythmic Top 40 was more Hip-Hop and R&B in those days. There were a handful of other dance stations around the country, but if they were aware of it, I’m sure they figured Zero for a Chicago-only phenomenon. But hot is hot, and “Bania U Cygana” sounded great on the treadmill.
That got me thinking about other great songs that I associate with airplay on only one radio station, at least in North America. They are the most local of local hits — songs that were “1/0” in the parlance of the trade publication Radio & Records at the time: playing on one station with no new adds in subsequent weeks. Sometimes there was no format competitor in the market to spread to. Sometimes the song was market-specific. Sometimes it was a market such as New Orleans or Montreal that cheerfully makes big hits of songs that work nowhere else.
These days, it’s hard to get the first add for a left-field record and even harder to get the second one. Competitors are reluctant to legitimize those songs, although when I do see a song that’s on only two stations — but both in the same market — I consider that one of the most compelling stories any song can have. But it doesn’t mean that the programmers willing to step out on a song that’s right for their station are wrong.
When I worked at R&R, I once made an awkward attempt to bond with the only CHR programmer who played the mid-’80s girl-group-meets-dance song “Don’t Hang Up” by Elly Brown. He was embarrassed that I remembered it even a few months later. But that wasn’t the intent. I never assume that PDs don’t know how to play the hits. I’m just delighted when they strategically go beyond them. Some of the songs I associate with one market were great, some just curious. But I’m glad somebody played them.
Dag, “Our Love Would Be Much Better” (1998) – CHR in the Southeast in the mid-‘90s was really Modern AC with jingles. Top 40 from Central Virginia to Jackson, Miss., had similarities, but Brian Burns’ WDCG (G105) Raleigh, N.C., stood apart even from that pack. This song by a local band went to power on G105 without spreading further. At the time, I remember thinking of it as Dave Matthews Band meets Prince. Now, I imagine lead singer Bobby Patterson groaning every time he hears Maroon 5.
Raw Herbs, “Don’t Bury Me Yet” (1987) – When I worked briefly in Alternative radio in 1987-88, I heard the last 20 seconds of this on an aircheck of KITS (Live 105) San Francisco. Even on the fade, it was easy to tell what this was meant to be: the Smiths go Country. I’m not sure why I didn’t just get a dub of the full song from KITS PD Richard Sands. But it won’t surprise regular readers that I hunted for it for years, including poring through used record stores on UK trips and finding only other Raw Herbs singles. I found it years later on eBay. And the best 20 seconds in the song were still at the end.
Wolfsheim, “Once in a Lifetime” (2000) – Alternative WLIR/WDRE Long Island, N.Y., was a house built on all things Depeche Mode/New Order-sounding. This German single — the best Depeche Mode record available at the time — became an odd Long Island-only signature for a latter-day version of the station during (if I remember correctly) a period when it was Modern AC.
Teenbeats, “I Can’t Control Myself” (1980); Puzzle, “Weekend Rock” (1980) – In the years before MTV, new wave was a much more regular presence on Top 40 in Canada, but the songs grabbed by Montreal radio were often different from what worked anywhere else in the country, and still are. The Teenbeats was a U.K. cover of the ‘60s Troggs classic. I might not convince you that it’s better, but it’s certainly hotter. (Think of Shocking Blue vs. Bananarama on “Venus.”) As for the Dutch/Italian “Weekend Rock,” you’ll enjoy it more if you share my penchant for goofy quasi-novelties. And if you don’t, you should certainly not listen to the next song.
Test Drive, “Supa Fine” (2007) – WPOW (Power 96) Miami has a 30-year history of doing its own thing. But this was still an unusual case: an old-school rap novelty that recalled nothing more than J.J. Fad’s “Supersonic,” 20 years earlier. It went to power, but never spread to rival WHYI (Y100) or any other station that I’m aware of. It’s not available on iTunes, and I don’t think it ever was.
Joe Diffie, “Down in a Ditch” (1997) – Dene Hallam prided himself on finding album cuts at KKBQ (93Q Country) Houston. Sometimes they became “Chattahoochee.” Often, they could rack up hundreds of spins without ever showing up on crosstown KILT (FM100). And 93Q’s success at the time proves they were secret weapons, not indulgences. This was the song that Hallam played as the follow-up to “Bigger Than the Beatles” at a time when the work single was “C.O.U.N.T.R.Y.” And it’s a prime example of the off-kilter genius of the late songwriter Dennis Linde.
Trini Triggs, “Horse to Mexico” (1999) – KPLX (The Wolf) Dallas had its own penchant for finding songs. Many of its signatures were by “Texas Country” artists like Robert Earl Keen’s “The Road Goes On Forever,” but Entercom Houston’s Chris Huff, who saw this from across town at KSCS at the time, recalls this as the one that was their true secret weapon. It still plays on KPLX now, and nowhere else.
Rose Royce, “Angel in the Sky” (1978) – “Wishing on a Star” became one of those songs retroactively known by everybody for a while, but it got the bulk of its airplay as an album cut, especially at WPGC Washington, D.C., and didn’t become a single until much of the excitement had run its course. A year later, they tried to recapture the magic. The hit from Rose Royce Strikes Again was “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore.” But the “Wishing” soundalike was this one — even lovelier and more affecting in my estimation. And the only place I ever heard it on the radio was R&B AM WOL, which was never shy about playing album cuts.
One Way, “Now That I Found You” (1979) – Detroit’s Al Hudson & One Way had nearly a decade’s worth of R&B hits, although “Cutie Pie” is the most enduring. This was a B-side that played for several years as Cancon on CKLW Detroit without ever being officially added. The song’s co-author was former CKLW PD Dick Bozzi, but don’t call it a favor. CKLW genuinely needed Cancon R&B, a rarity in that era, and this has the same sweetness that made Stephanie Mills’ “Never Knew Love Like This Before” such a hit a year later. I vaguely remember hearing this on AC WMJC (Magic 95) as well, but it’s an indelible memory of CKLW in its last few years as a CHR station.
Venna, “Sha-Kum-Up” (1984) – She was a local Detroit artist with a handful of singles on several labels. This was a song that lasted for about a month (or maybe less) in light rotation at R&B WGPR Detroit, a few years after the once-influential station had been eclipsed by WDRQ and WJLB. This is utterly unknown, but it’s great propulsive female dance/funk. Only the long version is on YouTube now, but the single is even better and tougher.
Egyptian Lover, “What Is a D.J. if He Can’t Scratch” (1984) — Local acts Uncle Jam’s Army and Egyptian Lover probably represent the moment when KDAY Los Angeles began its evolution from merely a great, musically aggressive R&B station to the mid-‘80s cradle of Southern California hip-hop. A few of KDAY’s finds (including Timex Social Club’s “Rumors”) spread to crosstown KGFJ or later to KPWR (Power 106). But this B-side I remember as all its own.
Valentine, “Take You Back (Street Corner Song From ‘Rocky’)” – Despite its proximity to Philadelphia, Princeton, N.J., was usually more in the cultural orbit of New York. But that didn’t keep all things connected to Rocky from being a big deal, including this WPST Trenton, N.J., hit under then-PD Tom Taylor. Many years later, I heard this on an aircheck of KCPX Salt Lake City, but I always thought of this as a WPST exclusive on a station where “Ariel” by Dean Friedman, “The Whistler” by Jethro Tull, and “Forever Autumn” by Justin Hayward were all far bigger than they were nationally. And only WPST played Valentine’s next single, “So Sad to Break Up.” Valentine leader Frank Stallone was derided for depending on exposure in his brother’s movies — I remember a New York magazine jibe about Sly & the Family Stallone — until “Far From Over.”
Bo Donaldson & the Hewyoods, “Oh Boy” (1976) – In the mid-‘70s when glam, bubblegum and ‘50s nostalgia collided in the U.K., the British band Mud went to No. 1 with this reworking of a Buddy Holly song. Mud had a series of British smashes as a vehicle for the Chinnichap writing/production team after the Sweet decided to write their own songs and rock harder. In the U.S., however, this version of the song went to Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods, two years after their success with a pair of U.K. covers, “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” and “Who Do You Think You Are.” By 1976, that act was in the worst possible place — tagged as teen idols by PDs, usurped as teen idols (by the Bay City Rollers) with listeners. But I remember this going to No. 1 at KCPX. It may have also made it on to rival KRSP.
Sus Ruso, “Switch It to Rock And Roll” (1983) – Gerry Cagle’s KFRC San Francisco out-rocked the yacht-rock-driven Top 40s of the format’s early ‘80s doldrums by finding its own songs. (The R&R profile of KFRC from that era has a subhead along the lines of “the importance of stiff records.”) Most of what set KFRC apart was R&B crossovers like this one, but there would also be pop/rock oddities such as this Joan Jett-influenced Atlantic single. Cagle played a similar farfisa-flavored oddity (lost even to YouTube) at KWOD Sacramento during its period as a CHR/Alternative hybrid: Rainbow Girls, “Dudes on the Beach.”
Tina Yothers, “Baby I’m Back in Love Again” (1987) – For most people, if they know this neo-girl-group song, it was because Yothers sang it on “Family Ties.” I heard it on Jerry Clifton-consulted KGGI Riverside, Calif. That station was already Rhythmic Top 40 at the time, and I remember it as an odd match (as well as an odd thing to encounter in the first place). But I guess it fit in a Debbie Gibson sort of way. Later, I would come across an earlier version by Canada’s Mens Room, best known for having the Cancon hit version of Belle Stars, “Sign of the Times.”
Ying-Yang Twins, “Get Out the Way” (2017) – A few years ago, I wrote about songs I associated with CKLW. You could easily do the same for songs that were only hits in New Orleans, or even on one station. KHOM (Mix 104.1) made a cottage industry of them during the mid-‘90s. That station’s MD was Tom “Jammer” Naylor, now PD of WEZB (B97), which seems to continue the tradition at least once a year or so, often with a Mardi Gras or sports-related novelty like this one that the station played last fall.