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Trucking songs: hey Mr. DJ won't you play a real country song, part four of four

By Jon Johnson, September 2000

For decades, late-night AM radio was a virtual graveyard, populated by a downright weird mixture of call-in shows, hellfire-and-damnation preachers and bizarre rants against commies, east coast liberals, the media and anyone else who didn't vote for George Wallace. Some stations, convinced that the all-night audience wasn't worth the electricity, would even shut down between midnight and 6 a.m.

Though examples of AM's "anything goes" era can certainly still be found to this day, a wave of broadcast industry corporate mergers over the past several years has forced station managers to pay more attention to their nocturnal audiences in order to maximize returns on the staggering investments made by their new employers.

And during the '90's, Art Bell's Coast to Coast show finally proved that Limbaugh/Stern-sized audiences were listening at night. Suddenly, late-night radio was like a roll of hundred dollar bills that you find under the cushions of your couch, and you have no idea where it came from.

Yet, a sizable, dependable late-night AM radio audience with a common interest had already existed for almost 30 years before Art Bell left his mark.

Of enormous importance in terms of reaching a trucker audience for almost 30 years have been the various all-night radio shows aimed at truckers, including the Truckin' Bozo Radio Network, hosted by Dale Sommers (13 stations nationwide), Bill Mack's Midnight Cowboy Trucking Network (12 stations), the Interstate Radio Network (heard on about 19 stations nationally until it ceased operations in mid-2000) and The Dave Nemo Show (until recently known as The Road Gang), with four clear channel 50,000-watt AM stations making it audible throughout much of the U.S. and parts of Mexico and Canada.

Mack, who possesses one of radio's all-time great bass voices, is a legend in the country music industry; not only as a d.j. for more than 30 years (he was inducted into the Country Music Disc Jockey Hall of Fame in 1982), but also as a successful singer/songwriter. Though probably best known for having written LeAnn Rimes' first hit "Blue" (originally intended for Patsy Cline, who died before she could record it), other Mack-penned hits include "Drinking Champagne" (most notably covered by George Strait) and "Clinging to a Saving Hand," recently recorded by Rimes and earlier by Connie Smith.

"I started the show on March 2nd, 1969," says Mack. "I didn't start it as a trucking show. I just went on the air with WBAP with a nighttime country music show. The first phone call I received was from a trucker in Minnesota. That trucker called up and said, 'It looks like we got us a midnight cowboy.' And that's the name I've used ever since."

"We soon found out that the biggest audience at night - outside of people who were lying in bed and couldn't sleep - was the truckers. It didn't take me long to realize that we had a close relationship. I'd say, 'So-and-so is traveling down I-30 this morning,' and I'd play a song for him. And it caught on. From time to time a baby will be born and somebody will call and tell me, 'Tell Long John' - they always use handles - 'that Lucy called in and said it's a boy.'"

Based in Nashville and hosted by Nemo since 1972 (the show had debuted the previous year), The Dave Nemo Show - like the others - focuses on traditional-sounding country music; both from older stars as well as from lesser-known artists such as Bill Kirchen, Hank Williams III, Dale Watson and others with a proven appeal to Nemo's audience.

All of it is programmed by Nemo himself, who - surprisingly for a show with such a wide reach - is left alone by his employers to run the show as he sees fit.

As it turns out, a wide berth from management is also enjoyed by both Mack and Sommers, exceedingly rare in today's era of tightly controlled playlists.

"I'm given complete (freedom)," says Mack. "I can play anything I want to play. Nobody has ever sent me a memo saying 'Do not do this,' or 'Do not do that.' I'm very fortunate."

Surprisingly, considering the traditional focus on all three shows, bluegrass has done poorly with the target audience. A nightly bluegrass segment a few years ago ended up not working out well for Nemo in particular.

"To tell you the truth, that was probably the biggest mistake I ever made as a programmer," says Nemo. "I love bluegrass. It's a fabulous form of music. I thought that a little snap of bluegrass for 15 minutes at 3:30 in the morning is better than any upper you could ever pop. We got a lot of extremely positive response."

"Then, the other side of the coin revealed itself. I started doing some research and found out that the average country music fan hates bluegrass. (I think) it's too close to home. Maybe it reminds them of being hillbilly. It's strange, but I found out the hard way that maybe 15 percent of our audience was diggin' that bluegrass. 85 percent were tuning out."

"It took me a long time to recover from it because the smallest crowd is always the loudest. And they were loud, but I just had to do it because we were actually losing listeners with bluegrass."

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