The Verdict

3/26/93

The judge sat stiffly behind the bench and looked around the courtroom, his dark eyes surveying those in attendance. As was the case since the trial began, all the seats were taken and standing room was three deep in the back. But this day, something was different. The atmosphere had changed. During the previous week’s testimony, emotions had run high and a feeling of excitement filled the air. Now, the mystery was gone, replaced by the stench of death. All had gathered to hear the verdict, but the outcome was a foregone conclusion. The gathering had turned into a funeral. Everyone was just waiting for the ax to fall.

He glanced down at the plaintiff’s table. The young attorney lounged casually in his chair with his feet up. His fingers were laced behind his head and his eyes were half-closed. His countenance gave off an aura of self-confidence. He had pled his case well.

The same could not be said of the defendants. They hid behind their table with slouched shoulders, bowed heads and eyes that stared down toward the floor. The old attorney had failed to show up for the reading of the verdict. Indeed, the court had been delayed for almost 30 minutes until the bailiffs found him passed out drunk in a bar down the street.

The judge rapped the gavel sharply several times. It was not needed. He was already the center of everyone’s attention.

He cleared his throat and read from a piece of paper held at arm’s length. “In the case of the People of Radio against Radio & Records, charged with the death of Top 40…” He paused for dramatic effect and glanced up briefly. “The court finds the defendants…not guilty.”

The courtroom exploded with shouts and groans of stunned disbelief. Individual voices cut through the din: “No way…wait a minute…we was robbed…bullshit!”

The judge waited for a few seconds for the crowd to finish its initial outburst. He had been through these surprises before. When it was time, he calmly picked up the gavel and rapped in sharply three times. “The court will come to order.” Five more raps brought the crowd in line.

If the verdict shook the onlookers, the defendants were caught ever more off-guard. They sat as if posed; eyes glassy, jaws slacked, mouths open and one pony tail twitching in disbelief.

If any of them had cared to check out the plaintiff’s table, they would have gotten an even bigger shock. The young attorney hadn’t changed positions. If anything, he looked even more relaxed. A closer look would have caught the shared glance with the judge.

“Order.” The judge said it again, even though it wasn’t needed. He was definitely in the spotlight now. The entire room seemed to be holding its breath. The judge shook his head slowly and took off his glasses. He pulled out a clean handkerchief and began polishing them unhurriedly. When he was satisfied they were clean (and confident that his audience had been stretched to the limits of the patience), he continued.

“The jury deliberated only a short time before handing in a verdict I’m sure any of you could easily predict. However, before I could summon the parties, the plaintiffs’ attorney asked to see me in quarters.”

The judge hesitated and cleared his throat. The young attorney remained relaxed in his chair. He, and only he among the onlookers, knew what was coming.

“We tried to find the defendants’ lawyer and couldn’t. Usually I refuse to hear only one side of an argument, but as this was a special circumstance, I listened. And I’m glad I did.”

He fixed the defendants with an icy glare. “It would appear that the attorney for the plaintiffs is more interested in a truthful outcome of this case than you are.”

Whatever elation the defendants must have felt after the verdict was quickly reversed by the judge’s statement. All eyes searched the floor again.

Once more he cleared his throat and in a clear, authoritative voice he said, “It seems that we have a case of corpus delicti.”

The courtroom crowd began that annoying murmur and he was forced to silence it with the gavel.

“The attorney for the plaintiffs pointed out several facts that were evidently missed by the defense…facts like Z100 in New York having a healthy upward trend…KIIS in Los Angeles showing a strong upward movement in their trend…Rick Dees moving back into the lead among English speaking radio in morning drive…and selected Top 40 stations showing strong improvements, including trend-setting WBBQ in Augusta leading the pack with an 18.1 12+ share in its last book.” The judge consulted the brief in front of him. “And there are others going up, including KKXX, WSTW, Q102, PRO-FM, Z104, WPGC, KTFM, KMEL, KSOL, FM102, KDWB KJMZ, SXKS, 92Q, WXXL and,” he set the papers aside, “the list goes on.”

“It would be difficult to prove that Radio & Records is guilty of killing Top 40 radio when the format is showing marked signs of life.”

The courtroom murmured again and the defendants got busy doing what they did best: hugging and patting themselves on the back.

The judge got a particular thrill from banging the gavel. He liked the sound it made and the sting that pierced his palm when he brought it down. He most liked the rush of power that came with it and as he called the court to order, he thought to himself that he was not unlike the plaintiffs in that feeling. The big difference was that he was voted into his position. He quickly brushed aside that fleeting comparison and continued

“Don’t be so quick to congratulate yourselves,” he barked. “This thing isn’t over yet.”

The startled defendants quickly settled into their seats. A couple even glanced toward the young attorney to get a hint at what was coming, but to no avail.

“You can’t be convicted of killing Top 40 since it isn’t dead, but I am willing to allow you to plead guilty to the lesser charge of attempted murder.”

One of the defendants jumped to his feet and tried to speak, but the judge quickly silenced him.

“Before you put your foot in your mouth…again…let’s review some of the facts: You changed the name to CHR with no input from the radio community, your policies are restrictive, you set rules and regulations with little regard to the radio stations you are supposed to serve, you limit the number of reporters to increase your power, you change the guidelines from week to week and are completely inconsistent in applying those rules to different stations. Even when given the opportunity, you refuse to stand up for the format.”

“But Your Honor,” the largest defendant whined, “I…”

“Shut up, Big Boy,” the judge snapped and added an exclamation point with the gavel.

Big Boy stared angrily at Pony Tail, but the Tail wagged the other way.

“Why, just today, the New York Times published an article entitled ‘The Breakup of Pop Music Audience Leaves Top 40 Radio Tuned out,’ an article that trumpets the rapid decline of Top 40 radio. The editor of Radio & Records is quoted in this article as agreeing with a so-called consensus that Top 40 radio can’t serve a large portion of the audience any more.”

The defendants were humbled once again.

“And before you plead, let me offer some sentencing guidelines. Since it’s a format you’ve attempted to murder, not a person, the court must take into consideration extenuating circumstances. Although we view you as the main culprit, you had many accomplices. Radio programmers across the country are guilty of following your restrictive policies to get the plums derived from a reporting status instead of refusing to play the game. Those who complain the most are usually those left out of the process. Once accepted as reporters, they generally keep totally quiet or just whisper angrily from time to time. Have any refused to report because of the practice? Have any reporting stations been vocal in their disagreement with these policies?”

“And what about record companies? Have they nourished full service on radio stations not in the R&R fold? Do they spend thousand of dollars in time and money on reporting stations in far-away places while letting other, more worthy, would-be reporters wither on the vine? Is alleged airplay more important than actual sales?”

“To R&R, I would sentence you to look daily in the mirror and reflect the wants and needs of those in the radio and record industries, rather than dictating your narrow, restrictive policies. Expand your reporters to include all of those who purport to be Top 40 stations. Only by including all Top 40 stations can you truly serve as a stimulant in the survival of the format. You must realize that if you strangle this most important format, eventually you, too, will die.”

“You’re now the problem. Become part of the solution.”

He paused for a moment and poured a glass of water, took the time to drink half of it, then resumed. “To the charge of attempted murder of the Top 40 format and generally being pompous, all-around pains-in-the-ass, how do you plead?”

The defendants quickly rose and spoke as one. “Guilty.”

The gavel came down with a decisive BING!

“Case Closed.”

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