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Listen closely, that’s the sound of demented music dying that you’re hearing on your radio.
After nearly 40 years of broadcasting catchy little tunes celebrating everything from dogs getting run over by lawnmowers to cockroaches devouring entire cities, Dr. Demento is discontinuing his syndicated radio show.
By summer’s end, the good doctor’s hyper-enthusiastic voice will be heard only on the Internet as it introduces oddball classics such as “There’s a Fungus Among Us,” “Fish Heads” and “Dead Puppies.”
For decades Demento has been a Sunday-night fixture on radio stations across the country, keeping alive the music of political satirists like Tom Lehrer (“The Vatican Rag”), while making a star of “Weird Al” Yankovic, whose first hit, “My Bologna,” debuted on the doctor’s show.
“He kept my whole career alive by playing Freberg records constantly,” says Stan Freberg, the Grammy-winning song satirist who, at 83, continues to write and perform comedy music and make public appearances.
Recently, however, the radio stations carrying Demento’s show declined to fewer than a dozen. He had planned to stop syndicating it this month until he learned a college station in Amarillo, Texas, had committed to airing it through the summer.
Over the decades, Demento, who was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame last year, has kept his playlists contemporary. But it was changing radio formats that did in his syndicated show, said Demento, 69, who in a parallel life is Barret Hansen, music writer and ethnomusicologist. His college master’s thesis was on the evolution of rhythm and blues.
“With the increasingly narrow casting, as they call it, of radio where stations will pick one relatively restricted format and stick with it 24 hours a day, especially in the music area, my show just got perhaps a little too odd of a duck to fit in,” he said.
The program has always been built on Demento’s personal music collection, which numbers in the hundreds of thousands and includes every recording format from antique wax cylinders to modern-day digital downloads. He says he’s long since lost count of how many recordings he keeps in the Southern California home he shares with his wife, Sue, but puts the number somewhere north of 300,000.
When he started putting them on the radio in 1970, it wasn’t all that unusual for a pop station to play a record by blues-rocker Eric Clapton, followed immediately by one from crooner Frank Sinatra. With that dichotomy, broadcasting a variety show that would include songs like Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater” and “Weird Al’s” Grammy-winning Michael Jackson takeoff “Eat It” didn’t sound so out of place.
But those days of radio appear over, says broadcast veteran and University of Southern California’s writer-in-residence Norman Corwin.
“Radio has been relegated to programs like Rush Limbaugh and other talk shows and (on the music side) niche formats,” said Corwin, who has worked in and followed the broadcast industry for more than 70 years. “They do have a huge following, and a huge influence,” he says of such shows. “But the variety programs are gone. That’s a shame.”
They’ve gone to the Internet, says Demento, who has been doing a separate Web show there for several years. On the Web, he says, he can play even a wider selection of music, including tunes too raunchy or outrageous for FCC-regulated terrestrial radio.
“I prefer to think of it as just transitioning to a new medium rather than it coming to an end,” he says of the show, which will mark its 40th anniversary in October.
“It’s kind of like when we changed from cassettes to CDs,” he adds in that distinctive Dr. Demento voice.
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