That's the medium where the Baltimore-area native got his start 44 years ago in Philadelphia, just as the FM revolution dawned.
"It was the beginning of album rock," Tearson says. "We were making it up as we went along."
We're chatting in his Westmont home studio, a converted bedroom where walls lined with shelves hold thousands of CDs. All alphabetized and genre-ized. This is where he selects songs and produces shows for broadcast, online, and satellite radio outlets.
The digital platforms in particular offer creative opportunities similar to those of terrestrial radio in 1967, when Tearson got his start as a University of Pennsylvania sophomore.
Beginning at WXPN, then WDAS, and later - most memorably - at WMMR, this quirky little guy with a quizzical note in his voice spun his signature on-air mix, live. His often-late-night shows were inspired by those he heard during Top 40's glory days, except they were better.
"Jimi Hendrix Experience's 'Fire,' into Procol Harum's 'Shine On Brightly,' into Argent's 'Dance in the Smoke,' into Billie Holiday's 'Gloomy Sunday,' into Dr. John the Night Tripper's 'Gris Gris,' " Tearson says, after I ask for an example of a typical set.
Or perhaps, he adds, a blend of Beatles, Bach, and Alice Cooper.
"At WMMR, program director Jerry Stevens allowed us license to stray from rock [and] pull in anything that might fit," Tearson recalls. "If you could make the mongoose fly, then all was OK."
The era of making "mongoose fly" was all too brief; by the late 1970s, album rock had become a thoroughly commercial format. Big chains of stations deployed ever more predictable playlists to lure bigger audiences, and software started selecting the sets.
Tearson, whose folk-flavored taste was seasoned with Captain Beefheart, Gilbert & Sullivan, and T Rex, had a succession of jobs at various Philly stations into the 1990s. After his wife, Lynne, died of cancer in 1995, he became a paralegal, later writing a weekly column about wrestling ("On the Mat") for the Philadelphia Daily News.
But a decade ago, Tearson got fully back in the radio game and now produces regular shows for WMGK-FM, as well as the online station RTDS (Radio That Doesn't S-) and Sirius/XM.
"Picking songs and putting them into a provocative sequence," Tearson says, "it's what I've done my entire adult life."
Cue up Stuff That Works.
Tearson had sung in various bands over the years, but had never made a record.
He was persuaded to do so by Tom Hampton, the Havertown guitarist who played in the band of their mutual friend, the late Philly rock great Robert Hazard, .
"Michael has probably forgotten in the last four minutes more about the history of popular music than most of us will ever know," Hampton says, describing his friend's singing as "really fearless."
With 1,400 recordings of Dylan's work in languages other than English alone, Tearson had almost too much material to choose from for his own album. In early 2010, "I sifted through hundreds of songs," he recalls.
The album title belongs to a Guy Clark song that didn't make it onto the CD; other tunes, such as "Wiley Post," reflect the singer's vision for his debut.
So, has Tearson traveled back to the heyday of FM and made a "concept" album?
"Only incidentally," he says, not missing a beat.
"There's a theme, more than a concept. The songs connect and comment on each other."
As when he spun them live, into the air, on those late Philadelphia nights.
Michael Tearson discusses how he does his job these days at www.philly.com/tearson
Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan
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