And by mostly, I mean some of it. A man's gotta keep some secrets. :)
The prep work for Sunday's show usually starts at 1 minute after 11am on Sunday. When OverEasy's finished for the day, I'm already thinking about what I'd missed, what I'd do differently, next week's feature album, requests that there wasn't time to get onto the air, you name it. If there are any regrets about what didn't get on, now's the time. If I botched a transition of some type, this is when the "kick me hard" sign comes out. If there's any late-breaking correspondence, I'll look at it then.
Take this week's show, the second go-round of the new Bruce Cockburn live album, Slice O Life. When the show wrapped for the day, I was already thinking about which album I'd be featuring next week, that being Leonard Cohen's Live in London, and which songs would get the nod as feature tracks. Both of these live albums landed on my desk about a week ahead of their release date (they both came out March 31st), Cohen first, followed quickly by the Cockburn. Originally I had planned to feature Cohen on March 29th, so I listened to that at home first, but when the Cockburn came in, I decided to go with My Favorite Canadian first. (And, frankly, Cohen's such a ladykiller that I harbor the fear he's gonna horn in on any relationship I have every time he releases an album, the punk. His whole suave demeanor is such that he makes me look like the dribbling-barbecued-ribs-on-self-goober that I am. Naturally I hate the guy.)
Almost a week out from the show, and sometimes longer, I'll have some sense of which songs from the feature album will get played. Somewhere between Sunday night and Tuesday, I'll also have maybe about 60% of the show's other material lined up.
When I listen to a feature album, I usually throw it into a CD player and hit "random" - regardless of any overarching concept (like say, the Decemberists' new album The Hazards of Love), the songs within HAVE to be able to stand on their own. There has to be a stand-alone catchiness to the material, it has to be hummable, it has to be engaging, and if this function isn't fulfilled out of the box for at least four songs (one per hour for the show from 7 to 11am), I may spin a song or two but will never really look at the album again. Many supposedly great recordings have been shunted aside with zero regret from me. I listen to these songs quickly because I have to; this music has to impress me or hook in quickly, because if it doesn't for me, there's a good possibility that it won't for anyone else.
This is not to minimize the creative process that makes the album possible, I simply mean that even the deep or complicated stuff - which, blessedly, I seem to have an ear for - has to get the ghost across, and well. I don't do monotonous music or things without a lot of melodic motion or songs where the lyrics make my skin crawl. Occasionally, I'll make an exception for a well-known artist with a new piece of work, but that's more a function of "here's the latest news on - " rather than a full-on endorsement. It's simply, in those cases, as Dick Clark put it in an interview with Lester Bangs, stocking the shelves and making no comment pro or con.
Having isolated my preferred feature tracks, ideally at least four plus two alternates, I get into my intense listening mode, making sure that I haven't gotten starstruck and fooled myself into thinking that something's good when it really isn't. After that, another spin to make sure the lyrics are okay for air, whether that means watching for things that might be offensive, or things that are just outright stupid. No later than the Thursday prior to a show, I'll have a sense of whether the album's worth my time or not. I'll also have a sense of what order I'll play the tracks in, over the course of the program.
(Here's my Wizard of Oz man-behind-the-curtain reveal: as a general rule, you can safely assume that the track in the 10 o'clock hour is my absolute favorite from the album, the 9 my next favorite, the 8, and then the 7 - I might be impressed by all of them, but the 10 o'clock is the greater among equals. Recent obvious exceptions were the features for Duncan Sheik's Whisper House and Van Morrison's Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl, the prior run more-or-less in order to preserve the narrative flow, the latter to hold onto that specific sequence of songs.)
With the other material, including the new songs, I'm listening for points of connection: songs with similar lyrical themes, songs in the same key, places where the end of one song could theoretically go well into the beginning of another, musicians common to songs (fore- or background). If I hear a piece in drop-D tuning, I might want to search out something along the same lines as a segue, or if I hear a vaguely Celtic/sea shanty lilt, I'll seek out something identical. Sometimes it's hearing songs calling to each other across the ages, answering one another - if it sounds like Dave Matthews briefly references a Drifters song (or its cover by George Benson), or Bruce Hornsby touches on the Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays song "Ozark" in a piano solo, I might bridge the gap and put the songs back-to-back to illustrate the influence.
Between research and listening, that four-hour program may take upwards of three to six times its running time to put together. For me, it is a constant process. If something catches my ear in a restaurant that I haven't heard before, I've been known to ask the wait staff to check a satellite feed to see if the song is listed. When I hear something on television that blows me away, I'll probably be online within the next few hours to see what it was, and start figuring out how to implement it within the show.
If there's a significant event coming up - a concert, a holiday - I may look at songs that fit that bill. For example, this past Sunday, I played Paul Simon's "Papa Hobo" after a chance hearing on an old mixtape in my car, something I'd popped in on the way to visit the Love of My Life, and the lyrical reference to a "basketball town" seemed like a perfect fit for the end of the year's Final Four. This in turn led to Steve Goodman's "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request" to mark the beginnings of baseball season.
Speaking of old mixtapes, back in my pre-OverEasy days, I used to sit in my apartment, listening to music, grabbing a notebook and jotting down references to tie songs together for my own compilations for the car, or for my other job at the time (as a convenience store clerk, believe it or not). Sometimes, seeing the info come back at you on the page can trigger a different thought process; you begin seeing connections you hadn't noticed before, how Horace Silver's "Song for My Father" can lead directly to "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" by Steely Dan, which in turn can take you to "Datura" by Tori Amos. To be honest, I think it was the development of that particular skillset, notebook + pen + blank cassette, as much as anything else, that gave me a sense of what might go together. It isn't a perfect process, Heaven knows, but it did help jog my mind and helped strengthen that most important muscle, the brain - and it's an exercise I recommend to anyone.
Try it sometime. The next time you hear a song on WTTS, and you think, wow, that sounds like someone who's been listening to the Rolling Stones all her life, and you catch a hint of "Gimme Shelter" in there somewhere, WRITE IT DOWN. And I don't mean TYPE, I mean WRITE; grab yourself one of those small coil notebooks, or a steno pad, leave it open on your desk and when something snags your attention, write it down in plain sight on something you can take around town with you. Next time you hear the song, imagine what can go into it, or come out of it, or what other songs it reminds you of. And then use those skills everywhere else. At the end of the day, at heart, we're all DJs, after all. All these songs are simply fragments in a much larger story, arbitrary starting and stopping points in the Big Novel.