Hang the DJ: The Demise of the Philippine-only Radio Hit

Glenn Tuazon

Glenn Tuazon 620x352

Illustration by Monica Ramos

What do Stephen Speaks and the Carpenter’s “You” all have in common? They were famous only in the Philippines. Glenn Tuazon explores the anatomy of the Philippine-only hit

In the summer of 2003, an unknown band became one of the biggest bands in the Philippines. The success of Stephen Speaks was the product of a perfect storm; acoustic guitar music was in vogue, and digital downloading and CD burning were on the cusp of exploding into ubiquity. But most importantly, Philippine radio deejays single-handedly turned Stephen Speaks into local stars, and their song, “Passenger Seat,” asenti anthem. Popular belief has it that “Passenger Seat” first garnered heavy airplay after a local deejay randomly downloaded the song from Limewire (or perhaps, Napster or Audiogalaxy) and liked it so much that he placed the song in the station’s regular rotation.

This wasn’t bad for an unsigned band practically unheard of in the United States. Stephen Speaks’ unusual success in the Philippines even resulted in their debut album, No More Doubt, first being released en massethrough Warner Music Philippines. The album went platinum after slightly over a week.

Stephen Speaks’ success culminated in a couple of local shows, which became hot tickets for the collegiate music crowd. The shows were nondescript; apart from “Passenger Seat” and “Out of My League,” none of the other songs generated as much interest from the crowd sitting on banigs in the middle of the concert halls. In any case, tickets sold out and Stephen Speaks had two radio hits in a country thousands of miles from their hometown of Oklahoma. Stephen Speaks has Philippine radio to thank for that.

“Passenger Seat” was perhaps the last of the Philippine-only hits: songs that became disproportionately popular in the Philippines, solely through local radio airplay.

Gin Blossoms enjoyed international success with songs like “Hey Jealousy,” “Til I Hear It from You,” and “Found Out About You.” But in their two recent Araneta Coliseum shows in 2010 and 2013, they went out of their way to highlight another Philippine radio hit in their concert set lists.

“For some reason, this is our most requested song here,” vocalist Robin Wilson said before the band played “As Long as It Matters.”

The Gin Blossoms’ second album, Congratulations I’m Sorry, only yielded one top-ten hit, “Follow You Down.” But due to heavy local radio airplay of the album’s fourth track, “As Long as It Matters,” it has practically overshadowed the rest of the band’s catalog from among Philippine music fans.

Due to local radio, a relatively obscure song by an otherwise popular band received and continues to receive more attention than the band itself probably expected.

“As Long as It Matters” is still a staple in ’90s throwback radio programs in Philippine radio.

The Carpenters released 46 singles and several best-of compilations over the years. Conspicuously absent from any of these compilations, even the 40-track long 40/40, is the Filipino favorite “You.”

“You,” never released as a single and apparently deemed a throwaway album cut from A Kind of Hush, reaped a different level of popularity in the Philippines, due to its heavy radio airplay.

“You,” specially appealed to Philippine music listeners’ sensibilities. Its lyrics were slightly saccharine and deeply sentimental: “You are the one that makes me happy, when everything else turns to gray…” It evolved into a favorite for Filipino despedidas and variety show tributes, largely owing to the song’s appeal to the basest of Filipinos’ sappiness.

The song is often the lead track in locally-produced Carpenters compilations, which is strange, considering the Carpenters and their label never considered “You” among the band’s best or most important songs. Again, “You” was a Philippine-only radio hit whose popularity was largely generated by radio deejays’ priming.

But “You” is not one-of-a-kind. Philippine radio has elevated erstwhile deep album cuts of otherwise popular bands into unexpected popularity. One such song is “Inspector Mills” by country-rock superstars America.

“Inspector Mills” was a mere B-side of “Right Before Your Eyes” a single released from America’s 10th albumView from the Ground. However, owing to heavy radio airplay, this unassuming song became a Philippine radio and karaoke bar favorite. “Inspector Mills” has even enjoyed more airplay longevity than the album’s lead track, “You Can Do Magic,” the band’s internationally celebrated comeback single. But just like “You,” “Inspector Mills” is nowhere to be found in America’s best-of compilations.

Similarly, California-based band Moonpools and Caterpillars’ Lucky Dumpling and album tracks “Soon” and “Hear” were Philippine radio staples. Of the 200-odd comments in the songs’ respective YouTube comments sections, most are nostalgic musings by Filipino fans.

Radio-generated hits were not solely a Philippine phenomenon. Region-only hits also exist, the best example of which is Southeast Asian radio mainstay Michael Learns to Rock, who infamously mastered the art of the inoffensive mid-tempo ballad. Southeast Asian radio stations awarded Michael Learns to Rock with heavy airplay, while they remained relatively anonymous in U.S. radio and elsewhere outside of Scandinavia and Asia. Other regional hits are Fools Garden’s “Lemon Tree” and the singles from Click Five’s second albumModern Minds and Pastimes (e.g., the overplayed “Jenny”).

The Philippine-only radio hit’s demise arguably arose from the diminished power of radio as a medium. Up until the last decade, apart from purchasing a physical record, the best way for one to listen to a particular song required staying tuned to the radio in the hopes of a deejay mercifully playing it in his daily playlist. The music fans’ ability to listen to a song at will demanded dedication: They had to pay to purchase some physical medium to gain control over a song. The power to play a song at any time was neither convenient nor instantaneous. It required a mix of chance and subjection to the deejay’s authority.

In the same way, radio deejays occupied a position of supremacy. They, through sheer repetition, had the power to prime the popular. A song became a hit based on its capacity to capture more time in the airwaves as compared to other songs.

Listeners practically had no choice. An extensive music collection required financial commitment. In the absence of downloading and digital music players, a music fan’s ability to select what to listen to was less an active choice and more of a passive exercise in trend spotting. And at the forefront of this priming was the radio deejay—he of the extensive power to construct “cool.”

The radio deejay’s extraordinary power also resulted in the practice of payola. Record companies paid radio stations to broadcast particular songs in that station’s playlist. Payola was the easiest way for labels to promote a valued artist’s new single. More often than not, the heavy radio airplay of these songs generated their own successes. There were only so many times someone could listen to a new Celine Dion single before it involuntarily turned into an earworm.

The Philippine-only radio hit stood as a subtle revolution. These songs were not preordained hit singles by record labels. Many of these were not even chosen as singles by record labels or the bands themselves. These tracks symbolized some resistance by the deejay against payola. By voluntarily choosing to play a deep album cut over the anointed hit, the deejay unwittingly resisted major-label trendsetting. It was the victory of choice over pre-selection. The deejay was ultimately not a pawn, but a kingmaker.

The Philippine-only radio hit thus represented the radio deejay’s power over the masses, and his resistance against “the man.” While, as a general rule, radio deejays still played the hits of the moment, their ability to generate popularity of the Philippine-only radio hit, oftentimes through the weight of airplay, was a pocket of resistance against record labels and an exertion of responsible power over the listener.

The death of NU 107 signaled a changing of the guard for Philippine radio. With most Class A to C listeners retreating into their iPods and streaming music services, involuntary listening through the radio became a specifically masa space. NU 107 became WIN Radio, Campus Radio became Tambayan 97.1, and Love Radio and Yes FM have dominated the airwaves for the past decade. Class A to C listeners have gained the ability to download or purchase digital music at will, thereby creating multiple points of trend-generation rather than relying on radio’s unilateral power. Radio retreated into the lowest common denominator. Pairing likable blabbermouths (such as the inimitable Papa Jack) with Middle of the Road songs became the lone formula for continued listenership.

With the defanging of radio, trend-generation has also been decentered. Tastes have diversified, but reach has declined. Instead of relying on the radio to generate trends, listeners have withdrawn into specialized spaces (often, online) and, in turn, have developed fragmented preferences.

Left in the dust was radio and its favorite child, the radio-only hit. While arguably there is a new brand of “-only” hits (i.e., iPod-only hits) these do not carry the same strange brainwashing effect of the radio-only hit. As radio-only hits were buttressed by a mass medium, the effect was akin to somebody having the ability to play his new favorite iTunes playlist and broadcast it to millions of listeners who had no choice but to listen, or switch to another station, which just repeated the cycle.

In the Philippines in particular, this has led to bizarre spectacles. All the songs from The Cascades’ 1963 albumRhythm of the Rain, even the unreleased singles, are all still widely familiar among Filipinos. All the tracks from Rhythm of the Rain—“Shy Girl,” “The Last Leaf,” “Angel on my Shoulder,” “Let Me Be,” “Dreamin’,” “Lucky Guy,” “My First Day Alone,” “Punch and Judy,” “There’s a Reason,” “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” “Was I Dreamin’,” and “Rhythm of the Rain”—still get played on Sunday radio. In contrast, only “Rhythm of the Rain” was able to make any lasting impact in the global hit charts. Imagine the shock The Cascades felt when they landed in the Philippines and realized that everyone in the audience (after having been convinced that The Cascades were indeed alive, contrary to the rumor that everyone died in a plane crash in the 1960s) could sing along to their obscure tracks. It’s difficult to imagine a similar phenomenon happening now: deejays creating hit songs out of deep album cuts (or in this case, every album cut) through the sheer power of airtime.

The list goes on: Italo-disco Philippine-radio hits such as Joy’s “Touch by Touch,” David Lyme’s “I Don’t Wanna Lose You,” Europe’s “Six, Two, Eight,” and Gilbert Montagne’s “Liberte’”; minor hits-turned-videoke staples such as Engelbert Humperdinck’s “A Man Without Love,” Larry Graham’s “One in a Million You,” and Matt Monro’s “The Music Played”; and soft-rock ballads such as Glenn Frey’s “Lover’s Moon,” Rupert Holmes’ “Terminal” (the song’s Wikipedia entry acknowledges its singular popularity in the Philippines), Paul McCrane’s “Is It Okay If I Call You Mine?” and Binocular’s “Deep.”

All these songs are relics of a time when Philippine radio was a living, breathing entity that had the capacity to generate aneurhythms for a whole nation.

Post-script

The Zombies were a 1960’s English rock band famous for songs like “She’s Not There” and “Time of the Season.” Like The Cascades, The Zombies also recently played a concert in Manila, upon retro impresario Steve O’Neal’s invitation. In their 2012 Manila concert, ostensibly from O’Neal’s prompting, The Zombies were asked to play “Goin’ Out of My Head,” which the band first covered in 1966.

The band had not played that song in decades. Unsurprisingly, Blunstone forgot the lyrics to the song.

But in a reaffirmation of the power the Philippine-only radio hit wields, the audience rescued Blunstone, supplying the missing words through a massive sing-along. “Goin’ Out of My Head,” after all, has remained one of the touchstones of Philippine retro radio. Whereas millennials now deem The Zombies an underrated proto-hipster act and laud Odessey and Oracle a psychedelic masterpiece, it came down to the middle-aged Filipino “tito” and his memory of AM radio to save The Zombies from a potentially embarrassing moment.

A massive “tito” sing-along: if that moment in The Zombies’ concert was indeed the last gasp of the Philippine-only radio hit, there is no more appropriate way it could’ve said goodbye.