Vinyl makes a comeback in Wichita
It was Aug. 12 — also known as National Vinyl Record Day — and an idea started spinning in Phil Thompson’s head.
Thompson, the morning DJ on Wichita classic rock station 104.5-FM The Fox, thought it might be fun to hook up an old turntable and spin some vinyl for his listeners, just for old time’s sake. Back when he first started in radio in 1980, stations were still playing vinyl records, and he would spend hours a day pulling them off the shelves that filled the wall, he said.
That Thursday, an engineer helped him plug the record player into the sound board, and Thompson dropped the needle on a record he’d borrowed from his best friend’s collection. The song “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” from the Rolling Stones’ 1974 record “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll” started to play on the air, and Thompson could hear the vinyl snapping and crackling.
So could his listeners, it turned out, and they loved it.
“People just went nuts,” he said. “It made this connection.”
The response was so positive that Thompson and his fellow disc jockey Roxanne Stuart decided to start a weekly feature called Vinyl Thursdays, which began last week. Now, Every Thursday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., the station’s DJs will start each hour by playing a little vinyl — sometimes a couple of songs, sometimes one whole side of a classic rock album like Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours,” The Eagles’ “Hotel California” or Boston’s “Boston.”
Vinyl has been making a big comeback for the past several years as hipsters and millennials — raised in an all-digital world where they could dial up any song they wanted any time of the day — started discovering records. They’re buying them, and they’re even buying new turntables, sold at Best Buy and at trendy stores like Urban Outfitters. Now, modern artists like as Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey, are releasing their new music on vinyl, too.
Meanwhile, people who grew up with vinyl have spent the past few decades trying to find ways to get rid of their record collections. When they hear it again, Thompson said, they realize how unique the experience of listening to a record was.
“All of a sudden, the young people today realized that the resonant sound and the full sound of vinyl was something special,” Thompson said. “I think it took that new generation of people to smack us that grew up with vinyl and say, ‘Listen to what you lost with this.’ ”
Connection to the past
After that first day of spinning vinyl, Thompson said, he heard from so many people.
Listeners called to say they loved hearing the records and offered to donate their own records to the cause. A man who was recently diagnosed with late-stage kidney cancer showed up offering the station his huge collection, which included the entire library from the band Kansas. He wanted to know his records would go to “a good home,” he told Thompson.
On the first Vinyl Thursday, the station’s general manager wandered into Thompson’s booth just to watch a record spin.
“She was kind of basking in the glow of everything that is Vinyl Thursday,” he said. “It’s really crazy how much it has connected with people. I knew it would, but I’m surprised by how much.”
Vinyl has many advantages over more modern technology, said Stuart, who started her radio career in 1977.
Even though digital music is more crisp and clean, many people believe that there’s a “considerable loss of sound quality” when compared to analog. She remembers that she and her coworkers predicted vinyl’s eventual return.
“All of us in the radio business, we all knew that sooner or later people would say, ‘Wait. This doesn’t sound quite as good,’” she said.
When records went away, people also lost the joy of poring over the 12-by-12-inch album covers, which would include artwork, photos, lyrics and more. CDS offered that experience in a much tinier form. But consumers of digital music don’t get that at all, Thompson said.
He often will post on the station’s Facebook page a photo of the album cover that goes with the record he’s playing so his listeners can enjoy it, too.
“I think it has a lot to do with the artwork as well,” Thompson said. “It’s having something tangible in your hand.”
Snap, crackle, pop
When he first started playing vinyl on the radio in the 1980s, Thompson said, a DJ dropping the needle down hard, letting a record skip or letting it continue to spin when the record was done, resulting in that unmistakable scratching sound, would be considered a fireable offense.
“That would have been called bad radio,” he said.
But his listeners now love it.
The snaps and crackles that a record develops over time are easy to hear, even over the air. And Thompson laughs when he talks about a record he was playing skipping on air and listeners then calling to say how much they enjoyed hearing the skips. They can tell, even over the air waves, that they’re hearing a vinyl record, and it takes them back.
“It gives you this nice warm, fuzzy feeling,” he said. “Not only are you hearing the songs you remember, but you’re hearing them in the format you heard them in.”
Listening to records was a unique experience, and it’s a shared experience that bonds music fans from the classic rock generation. That age group will hear a song today, and their brains will still recall what song played next on the record. Subliminally, they even remember how much time was in between tracks.
Thompson said he now gets a little sad when he thinks of his old record collection. At one time, he had about 5,000 albums. Now, he’s pared it down to around 100.
Vinyl Thursday has shown him that records are kind of a metaphor for life, especially relevant to the generation that grew up listening to them.
“It’s the imperfections of vinyl that I think we can all relate to as humans,” he said. “The more we get played with, the more we snap and crackle and pop, too. The more well worn we are, the more loved we are.”